The other week I stood in front of the wall of olive oil at the supermarket. Options ran the gamut from pretty cheap to quite expensive. Which to choose?
Within 30 seconds and two steps, I zeroed in on a well-priced bottle of Pavilions’ own O Organic California extra-virgin olive oil made from fruit harvested less than six months earlier. I danced a little jig. (Yes, I need to get out more.) Here’s what I was looking for:
1. The Right Container
First, I scan the packaging and skipped over anything in clear or plastic bottles.
Clear bottles expose delicate oil to damaging light, and plastic is a permeable substance that exposes it to air. Light and air will make your oil age faster.
This whittles down my choices – a lot.
Instead, I look for oil packaged in tin or dark glass, both of which help protect it from light and air.
For extra credit, I skip bottles on the top shelf, as those have been exposed to the most light. I’ll even pulled a bottle from the back of the shelf, where it’s sitting in the dark.
2. The Freshest Olive Oil
Fresh oil smells and tastes glorious — herbal, grassy and/or peppery. The fresher the oil, the more antioxidants it has.
Even top-quality extra-virgin oil will taste terrible when it goes off. It won’t hurt you, but it’ll remind you of dirty socks or varnish. Those aren’t qualities you want in your food.
But since I’m at the supermarket and don’t have the luxury of opening a bottle to sniff and taste it, how can I gauge its freshness?
When I find a bottle that looks promising, I check the label for a harvest date – ideally one within the last 12 months.
More brands now include this info. Manufacturers like California Olive Ranch, which you’ll find at many big-box stores, as well as many smaller producers proudly include a harvest date on their labels. So do some store private-label brands.
Some will note the year olives were harvested. If they include the month, even better. You can see why I was so excited about that jackpot bottle I found the other week.
“Best by” or “best before” dates are far more common, but much less reliable. Depending on the producer, that “best by” date can be two years — sometimes more — after the harvest date..
Those two steps will help you find good options, but the labels offer a lot of other helpful information when choosing oil — if you know what to look for.
- Extra-virgin: It’s made from the first cold pressing of just olives. If it’s certified by the International Olive Council (IOC) or California Olive Oil Council (COOC), you know it meets minimum requirements for low acidity and is free of flavor defects. This is the least-refined form of olive oil. It’s also the highest in antioxidants and has the most robust flavor.
- Virgin: This is oil is also made from the first cold pressing of the olives but is considered lower quality than extra-virgin olive oil because it has slightly higher acidity. It’s perfectly good to use.
- Fino: This is a more affordable blend of extra-virgin and virgin olive oil. This also is a good option.
- Pure: This isn’t “pure” at all, though UC Davis research found nearly half of consumers think it’s the highest-quality stuff on the market. In fact, it’s a blend of a little bit of virgin olive oil and a lot of highly refined (often with chemical solvents) oil made from olive pomace or “mash” leftover from producing virgin olive oil.
- Light, lite or extra-light: This sounds like a healthy choice, right? “Light” refers to the oil’s neutral color and flavor. In terms of calories and fat, it’s the same as other olive oils. It may also be mixed with other types of oil.
- “Made in Italy,” “bottled in Italy,” “imported from Italy.” Italy produces some of the world’s most glorious olive oil. It also exports some of the world’s worst. If you see terms like this on a label, check the ingredient list, which must include the true country — or countries — of origin. Also consider that while countries like Spain, Greece and Tunisia produce incredible olive oil, they’re not likely selling their best stuff to be bottled and exported as “Italian.”
Choose the Right Oil for Your Needs
It’s a myth that you shouldn’t use extra-virgin olive oil for cooking. High-quality, filtered extra-virgin olive oil or fino olive oil has a smoke point of about 410° F, making it a good choice for cooking, even frying.
Unfiltered extra-virgin olive oil tends to be more artisanal — and expensive. All that cloudiness and particulate matter adds flavor and character. Unfiltered oil also tends to be higher in antioxidant polyphenols.
Buy fancy unfiltered EVOO in small amounts and use it in dressing or as a condiment, drizzled over soup or beans or roasted vegetables.
An oil’s color is a sign of the type of olive used and when it was harvested (early-season oils tend to be greener). Robust olio nuovo, made with young, first-of-season olives, tends to have a pungent, peppery, even bitter bite (also an indication of more antioxidants).
Mellow-tasting oil, produced later in the season when the fruit is riper. It’s nice for baking.
Buy Only What You’ll Use
A large tin of olive oil might seem like a good bargain, but it’s a false economy if you won’t use it up in promptly .
Instead, opt for a smaller bottle that you’ll use up quickly — ideally in less than two months. That’s especially true if you’re buying a high-end unfiltered extra-virgin olive oil to use as a condiment.
Handle with Care
Once you get that beautiful olive oil home, treat it properly so it doesn’t spoil. And that means storing it in your pantry or cupboard, away from light and heat. And keep it sealed to minimize oxidation. You even can stash it in the fridge. Refrigerated olive oil won’t keep forever, but chilling it can extend its shelf life by a few months. (Olive oil solidifies when it chills but liquefies as it returns to room temperature.)
Never keep olive oil by the stove, where heat can cause it to oxidize more quickly.
Most importantly, use it! Unlike wine, olive oil doesn’t improve with age.
3 Amazing Oils to Try
You won’t find these at the supermarket, but they’re definitely worth ordering directly from the producers:
Fat Gold. This is a super-small Bay Area producer. You can purchase individual tins or subscribe for shipments four times a year. I’ve subscribed since they first launched and getting these every few months is a huge treat.
Seka Hills. The Yocha Dehe Wintun Nation in California’s Capay Valley produces fantastic oils (along with honey, beer, wine and other goodies).
Round Pond Estate. This Napa Valley vineyard also produces terrific olive oil. Their blood orange and Meyer lemon varieties are two of my favorites.