How to Buy Great Olive Oil

  • Posted on
  • By Truth In Olive Oil

Key concepts

  • Olives are stone fruits, like cherries and plums.  So real extra virgin olive oil is fresh-squeezed fruit juice – seasonal, perishable, and never better than the first few weeks it was made.
  • Bitterness and pungency are usually indicators of an oil’s healthfulness.  Sweetness and butteriness are often not.
  • There are 700+ different kinds of olives, which make thousands of different kinds of oil.  Asking “what’s the best olive oil?” is like asking “what’s the best wine?”  The answer is, “depends on what you’re eating it with.”
  • Know the when, who, where of your oil:  When it was made (harvest date), who made it (specific producer name), and exactly where on the planet they made it.
  • Like everything on Truthinoliveoil.com, this guide is work in progress, and is upgraded as I learn about new tips, scoops . . . and frauds.
  • Read my book Extra Virginity to understand the bigger picture about where olive oil, great and bad, comes from, and who is making it.

 

Buyer’s guide

  • Unlike many wines, which improve with age, extra virgin olive oil is perishable:  like all natural fruit juices, its flavor and aroma begin to deteriorate within a few months of milling, a decline that accelerate when the oil is bottled, and really speeds up when the bottle is opened.  To get the freshest oil, and cut out middle-men who often muddy olive oil transparency and quality, buy as close to the mill as possible.  If you’re lucky enough to live near a mill – common around the Mediterranean, and more and more so in other areas of the world with a Mediterranean-like climate, like Australia, S. Africa, California, Texas, Georgia – visit it during the harvest to see how olives are picked, crushed, stirred, and spun into olive oil.  I’ve included many profiles of millers and oil makers in the US, the Mediterranean, Australia and elsewhere to be found in my book Extra Virginity, which captures their craftsmanship and perfectionism despite a day-to-day struggle with fraud.

 

  • If a mill is out of reach, find a store where you can taste olive oils in a range of styles before you buy them, and where the staff can answer a few basic questions about how, where and by whom the oils were made.  Specialty olive oil stores and oil bars are becoming more common, and a growing number of delicatessens, markets and supermarkets have an oil bar.  In North America, model institutions include Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor, Michigan; Gustiamo in the Bronx; Eataly in Manhattan; The Olive Press in Sonoma; and Amphora Nueva in Berkeley, though specialty olive oil stores and oil bars are becoming more common, and a growing number of delicatessens, markets and supermarkets contain an oil bar.  Franchise chains like We Olive and Oil and Vinegar also offer a wide selection and often knowledgeable salespeople.

 

 

  • When choosing bottled oil, prefer dark glass or other containers that protect against light, buy a quantity that you’ll use up quickly, and keep it well sealed in a cool, dark place.  Even an excellent oil can rapidly go rancid when left sitting under a half-bottle of air, or in a hot or brightly-lit conditions.

 

  • Don’t pay much attention to the color of an oil.  Good oils come in all shades, from vivid green to gold to pale straw, and official tasters actually use colored glasses to avoid prejudicing themselves in favor of greener oils.  Both in flavor and aroma, genuine extra virgin oils have, a marked fruitiness reminiscent of fresh olives, and typically have some level of bitterness and pungency (pepperiness at the back of the throat).  In great oils these characteristics are harmoniously balanced, together with complex aromas, flavors and aftertastes that bloom gradually on the senses.

 

  • Don’t be put off by bitterness or pungency – remember that these are usually indicators of the presence of healthful antioxidants, anti-inflammatories and other healthful “minor components” of top-quality olive oil – unless one of these characteristics is overwhelming and disproportionate to the others.

 

  • Above all, seek out freshness, choosing oils that smell and taste vibrant and lively, and avoid tastes or odors such as moldy, rancid, cooked, greasy, meaty, metallic and cardboard.  Also pay attention to mouthfeel: prefer crisp and clean to flabby, coarse or greasy.

 

  • Labels:  If  you aren’t able to taste an oil or get help from a knowledgable salesperson, you’ll have to rely on the label for information about the oil.  To begin with, be sure your oil is labeled “extra virgin,” since other categories – “pure” or “light” oil, “olive oil,” not to mention “pomace olive oil” – have undergone chemical refinement which strips away olive flavors and many of the oil’s health benefits.

 

  • To ensure freshness,  look for bottles with a “best by” date, or better still a date of harvest.  Try to buy oils only from this year’s harvest.  “Best by” dates are usually two years from the time an oil was bottled, so if you see a date that is two years away, the oil is more likely to be fresh.  That said, many olive oils, particularly in the EU, are stored for years before being bottled, yet their “best by” dates are (wrongly) determined by the date of bottling, not of harvest.  In fact, most supermarket extra virgins are blends of fresher oil from more recent harvests with flatter oil from earlier harvests.  So far, no system has been found to calibrate the “best by” date to the chemical freshness of the oil when it is packed.

 

  • Phrases like “packed in Italy” or “bottled in Italy,” do not mean that the oil was made in Italy, much less that it was made from Italian olives.  Italy is one of the world’s major importers of olive oil, much of which originates in Spain, Greece, Tunisia and elsewhere, so don’t be taken in by Italian flags and scenes from the Tuscan countryside on the packaging.  Some of the oil imported into italy is consumed by Italians, but much of it is blended, packed and re-exported.  Generally speaking, avoid oils whose precise point of production – a specific mill – is not specified on the label.

 

  • Chemical parameters like free fatty acidity (FFA) and peroxides are sometimes mentioned on olive oil bottles.  In general terms, FFA indicates the breakdown of the basic fat structure of an oil, whether due to poor-quality fruit (bruising, olive fly infestation, fungal attack) or most commonly, by delays between harvest and extraction of the oil; a low FFA doesn’t guarantee high quality, but high FFA almost always means poor oil.  An oil’s peroxide value indicates the extent to which a young oil has been oxidized, typically through breakdown by free radicals or by exposure to light.  The levels set by the IOC and EU (and followed recently by the USDA) for the extra virgin grade – 0.8% FFA and a peroxide value of less than 20 milliequivalents per kilo – are by no means stringent enough to guarantee good oil, which frequently has 0.2 percent or lower FFA and peroxides at well below 10 meq/kg.

 

  • An oil’s polyphenol content contributes significantly to its antioxidant properties, and is therefore an important indicator of a range of health-giving characteristics, taste qualities, and shelf life (polyphenols work to preserve the oil as well as the bodies of those who consume it).  The IOC recently approved a method of measuring an oil’s polyphenol content, so this indicator may become increasingly common on olive oil labels.  At least in health terms, the higher the rating, the better, with numbers below 300 being low, and above 500 being high – though the latter can be too bitter, peppery or both for many consumers.  (Some oils rate as high as 800 in polyphenols.)

 

  • Though not always a guarantee of quality, several certifications mentioned on olive oil labels can provide a level of confidence that an oil has been properly made.
  1. Look for PDO and PGI certification.  PDO is the acronym for “Protected Designation of Origin” (“DOP” in Italian), a legal definition, similar to the Appellation d’origine contrôlée designation in French wines, for foods (including extra virgin olive oil) that are produced or processed in a specific region using traditional production methods.  (PGI, or “Protected Geographical Indication” (“IGP” in Italian) is a similar though less stringent designation.  The production process of PDO and PGI oils is laid down by a specific protocol and overseen by a quality control committee, which further helps to maintain the quality of the oil.  PDO status is legally binding within the EU, and is gradually being extended to areas outside the European Union via bilateral agreements
  2. Olive oils certified by national and state olive oil associations, such as the Australian Olive Association, the California Olive Oil Council and the Association 3E.  The North American Olive Oil Association and the International Olive Oil Council also run certification programs, though I personally think their standards should be improved.
  3. Organic certification can (but doesn't always) offer further assurances of quality and healthfulness.

 

 

  • For information on some of the more prominent olive oil competitions around the world, see the competition list of the Olive Oil Times and the Olive Oil Source.

 

  • Start noticing the cultivars (ie the varieties) of olives that are used to make the oils you like best, as you do the grape varietals of your favorite wines.  There are 700+ different kinds of olives in the world!

 

  • Certain terms commonly used on olive oil labels are anachronistic, and sometimes indicate that the producer is paying more attention to the image of an oil than what’s actually inside the bottle.  Take the terms “first pressed” and “cold pressed,” for example.  Since most extra virgin oil nowadays is made with centrifuges, it isn’t “pressed” at all, and all true extra virgin comes exclusively from the first pressing of the olive paste.  EU regulations state that “cold pressed” can be used only when the olive paste is kept at or below 27º C during the malaxing process – a level respected by nearly all serious producers-and when the oil is actually extracted with a  press, not a centrifuge.

 

  • Unfiltered oil and filtration:  Some consumers view unfiltered olive oil, with tiny bits of olive pulp and skin floating in it, as more authentic and flavorful.  Improper or excessive filtration can attenuate certain flavors and aromas, and many producers of fine oil prefer simply to rack their fresh-pressed oil repeatedly, removing sediment, rather than to filter it.  However, other top oil-makers swear by filtration, which can significantly increase an oil’s shelf life.  In either case, be on the lookout for a layer of sediment at the bottom of the bottle, which often spoils faster than the oil itself, and can produce the taste flaw of muddy sediment.

 

  • As you would with a wine, choose a style of oil that fits the role it will play in your meals.  Pick a powerful oil – variously described as “robust,” “early harvest” or “full-bodied” – to accompany foods with strong or distinctive flavors, such as pepper steak; bruschetta or fett’unta (toasted bread with oil and salt, often rubbed with garlic; fresh, flavorful vegetables like arugula; or  to drizzle over vanilla ice cream (try it before you scoff!)).  Choose a milder oil – often called “mild,” “delicate fruit,” or “late harvest”- for foods like fish, chicken or potatoes.

 

  • Olive oils are also flavored with a range of fruit, vegetable and other extracts; some of the most popular are made with lemons, blood oranges and other citrus fruits.  While many olive oil cognoscenti (and most Europeans) turn up their noses at these oils, they have a wide following in North America and Down Under.  The best are made by crushing whole fruit or peels together with the olives, a process called agrumato. Make sure that the base oil flavor isn’t rancid, and that the flavoring itself is fresh and not artificial tasting.

 

  • Avoid bargain prices, because producing genuine extra virgin oil is expensive.  Though high prices don’t guarantee great oil, low prices – under about US$10 for  a liter – strongly suggest that the oil you’re buying is inferior.  Having stated these general guidelines, it’s worth considering two potential exceptions.  First, new mechanized methods of olive growing and harvesting (such as super-high-density cultivation) are reducing production costs, Allowing excellent oils to be made at lower prices than with traditional methods.  Second, government subsidies to olive growers and oil makers in the European Union and elsewhere allow subsidized producers to charge far lower retail prices for their oils than producers in the US and Australia, where no subsidies exist.

 

  • Once you’ve bought your oil, store it in a place where it is protected from light, heat and oxygen, the three enemies of good oil, which speed spoilage.  And don’t hoard it!  Even great oils deteriorate with each passing day, and will all too soon become ordinary, even rancid, if not used quickly.

 

  • There is a great deal of disagreement, and a fair bit of misinformation, concerning whether to use extra virgin olive oil, rather than refined (“pure,” “light”) olive oil for frying.  Quality extra virgin olive oil is a fine choice for sautéing and shallow frying, so long as its flavor doesn’t overpower the food; an aggressive early-harvest oil would be a poor choice to saute fish, for example.  Using extra virgin olive oil for deep-fat frying at higher temperatures is uneconomical, and can even be counter-productive, because the cooking process can accentuate the harsh flavors in the oil, and many of the flavors and aromas of fine oils will volatilize and disappear.  Refined olive oil is probably a better choice for deep-fat frying, though there are undoubtedly many extra virgin olive oils that hold up well to frying – the lower an oil’s free fatty acidity, the higher its smoke-point (the temperature at which it begins to smoke, producing unpleasant and unhealthful byproducts), and the more times it can be re-used.  (Each time the oil is heated its acidity rises, meaning that its smoke point will and quality will both decline.)

 

  • Depending on their composition, most oils harden when chilled to around 3 degrees Celsius.  As they cool, a waxy sediment settles out of them.  Freezing does not harm an oil – in fact, it is a good method of preservation – but may reduce its shelf life if substantial sediment is produced.  The idea that the freezing point of an oil indicates whether an oil is adulterated is a myth.  For more details see the excellent précis here.

 

  • Olive oils are different each year, because they're made from freshly-harvested olives, which vary in quality and character as much as wine grapes do.  So guides to great oils must be annual, and not all oils that win a major competition one year are of equal quality the next.  However, the following resources provide valuable leads to olive oil excellence.

    Der Feinschmecker, a German-language wine and food guide, produces a fine yearly guide to some of the best olive oils of the season (in German)

    + Good yearly guides to the olive oils of Italy are produced, in Italian, by Slow Food, Gambero Rosso, and several other publishers.

    + Experienced oil expert Marco Oreggia produces Flos olei, a yearly guide to oils worldwide – see here and here.  Though producers have to pay to be included in the guide, many excellent oils are covered, some from lesser-known production areas.

    + The California Olive Oil Council certifies member oils here.

    + Olive Oil Times, a vital source of information on the industry, is compiling an Olive Oil Times guide, together with an iPhone app.  Although at this point the guide is self-nominating – ie producers nominate themselves, and aren’t vetted by independent experts – it contains a number of good oils with useful tasting notes and food pairing information.

    + Another iPhone app is GoEVOO, by olive oil writer and enthusiast Carol Firenze, author of The Passionate Olive.  This too is self-nominating, and limited at this point to California, but contains some good oils.

 

Web resources

  • Olive Oil Times: The best source for daily news from the olive oil world.
  • Teatro Naturale in Italian and in English (the Italian site is better and more comprehensive): Olive oil news with a European perspective, sometimes taking the side of the larger producers and bottlers.
  • UC Davis Olive Center: The new olive oil research center at one of America’s most important agricultural universities, which has an IOC-recognized taste panel, and performs important research into sensory analysis.  The UC Davis Olive Center has the potential to become one of the world’s leading voices regarding extra virgin olive oil.
  • Olive Oil Source: An excellent and diverse array of resources covering many aspects of olive oil chemistry, tasting,  and production.
  • Slick Extra Virgin: A highly entertaining and informative blog by Richard Gawel, Australian chemist, oil taster and consultant who is as meticulous about facts as he is caustic about slippery behavior in oil.  Gawel also sells an ingenious plasticized wheel containing the terminology used in oil tasting, which is a convenient reference tool.
  • CalAthena: Smart, savvy, commonsense wisdom about olive oil from Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne, a California-based olive oil consultant and quality activist.
  • Australian Olive Association:  The trade association of the Australian olive oil industry, whose stress on olive growing and oil-making skills as well as innovative chemical testing has pushed the envelope of olive oil quality throughout the world.
  • ONAOO: A good site, in Italian and English, by one of the world's pioneering olive oil sensory analysis groups, the National Organization of Olive Oil Tasters, located in Imperia, Italy.
  • Modern Olives: One of the world’s premier laboratories for the chemical and sensory analysis of olive oil, based in Jeelong, Victoria.
  • Olive Oil Testing Service, Leading olive oil chemical and sensory testing laboratory based in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, Australia.
  • California Olive Oil Council: The leading association of olive growers and oil producers in America, which compiles a list of certified oil producers and offers a range of other useful information.
  • North American Olive Oil Association: The trade association of the olive oil industry in the United States, which runs quality tests and a certification program, and recently encouraged the USDA to upgrade its trade standard for olive oil to meet international norms.
  • Merum: The superb, in-the-know, highly opinionated website by olive grower and oil-maker Andreas März, a Swiss who lives in Tuscany, which considers a wide range of Italian oils and wines (in German).
  • Gustiamo:  An importer of top-quality olive oils from Italy, which they sell online, as well as passionate activists for food authenticity issues.
  • Zingermans: One of the best selections of olive oils – and a great many other exotic foods – available by mail-order in America.
  • Harold McGee: Journeys through the science of food, including olive oil, led by a world authority in the chemistry of food and cooking.
  • Association 3E: A perceptive look at both the philosophical and the pragmatic aspects of quality in olive oil, and an introduction to “super-premium olive oil,” which 3E proposes as a new designation for top-quality oil, to replace the now meaningless adjective of “extra virgin”.  Featured in Extra Virginity.
  • International Olive Council: The historic intergovernmental olive oil body representing growers in countries around the Mediterranean, whose tasting protocol helped create the modern definition of extravirgin.
  • Corporazione Mastri Oleari: An authoritative group of top extra virgin olive oil producers (in Italian).  The organization and its corageous head, Flavio Zaramella, are profiled in Extra Virginity.
  • Veronica Foods: A high quality source for olive oil for a growing number of specialty stores across America, as well as its own outlet, Amphora Nueva in Berkeley, California.
  • The Olive Press: the slick website of the equally slick Sonoma oil mill and shop, owned by wine stand-out Fred Cline.
  • Marco Oreggia: An independent olive oil taster who writes one of the more important yearly guides to top olive oils worldwide (in Italian and English).
  • UCCE Sonoma: High-class technical resources for olive growers and millers.
  • Slow Food: The global food NGO offers important information on top oils and oil producers, and compiles a yearly guidebook (in Italian) that is required reading for oil aficionados.
  • Gambero Rosso: A leading Italian wine and food association whose new guide to italian extra virgins, updated each year, is a useful reference.
  • CHOICE magazine – Australia’s premier consumer magazine, which publishes regular surveys of olive oil quality in Australian stores.