What to Look for When Buying Olive Oil
Finding a good olive oil can be tricky, but each bottle holds several clues that can tell you if it's worth your money or not.
Most people buy olive oil like they buy wine. They look for a bottle on the middle shelves with an attractive label and a reasonable price tag, and they call it a day. And who's to blame them? The options seem endless and it's exhausting to sort through all of the jargon.
But the range in taste and quality of olive oils is much broader than many people realize, and picking the right one can truly elevate your cooking.
Fortunately, finding a good olive oil isn't all that difficult once you know what to look for. And each bottle holds several indicators that can tell you if it's worth your money or not.
Stick with extra virgin
When picking out an olive oil for cooking, always go with an extra virgin olive oil. It is free from chemicals, unrefined, and it goes through several quality checks to make sure there are no defects before it can be classified as extra virgin. That said, not every extra virgin olive oil that ends up on your grocery store shelves is the real deal due to loopholes in the system, but there are ways you can spot phonies.
Pay attention to the color of the bottle
Color is important for olive oil, but maybe not in the way you think. It's the bottle's color that matters – the color of the oil itself doesn't say much about its quality. Look for a bottle that is opaque and made out of dark metal or glass.
"No serious oli producer is going to put their oil in a plastic bottle or a clear bottle," says Joanne Lacina, an olive oil expert and the founder and president of Olive Oil Lovers.
This is because light makes olive oil deteriorate more rapidly, so oil stored in clear packaging is likely not a high quality oil and may be already on its way to going bad.
Check the origin
Olive oil companies are required to list the place of the oil's origin on the label, but there are loopholes that allow companies to label an oil as a product of the country it was bottled in, not where the olives were actually grown and milled. This means that you could be buying an olive oil made up of a bunch of different olive oils from a handful of different countries even though it says "product of Italy."
"The more specific the area the oil is from, the better," said Lacina. "A lot of times, the cheaper oils are blends of olive oils from different areas. Larger companies will source cheaper olive oils from all over and very often you'll see the product of origin is from multiple countries. Now does that make it a bad oil? Not necessarily. But obviously price is more important to that bottler than authenticity of origin."
Look for a harvest date
"Best by" or "use before" dates on olive oil bottles aren't actually all that helpful. The date you should really pay attention to is the harvest date. This tells you how fresh an oil is based on when the olives were harvested.
"When I'm in a store and I'm unfamiliar with the brands, the first thing I look for is a harvest date," said Nicholas Coleman, an oleologist and co-founder of the olive oil procurement company Grove & Vine. "Good producers will telegraph that and have a harvest date on it."
Don't see a harvest date on the bottle? You should probably keep shopping.
"If you don't see a harvest date, that's the first sign that something is a little strange here," Coleman said.
Once a bottle of olive oil is opened, it should be consumed in two to three months. Just like light, oxygen is an enemy of olive oil and it will start to deteriorate as soon as it is exposed to the air.
Use your senses
It might seem strange to drink olive oil, but sipping it on its own is one of the surest ways to determine if you have a good oil on your hands. High-quality, authentic extra-virgin olive oils have three three distinct flavor attributes: fruity, bitter, and pungent.
To taste olive oil, pour a tablespoon or two into a shot glass or small glass. Warm the oil by cupping the glass in your palm and covering the top with your other palm. Swirl it around for 30 seconds or so and smell it. Then take a small sip and look for hints of fruitiness and grassiness, bitterness and a peppery sensation in your throat. That peppery sensation indicates the pungency of an oil.
If your oil smells of crayons or leaves an oily, waxy film in your mouth, that means it's rancid and it's time to throw it out.
Once you find the right olive oil, Lacina says to be sure to treat it right. That means storing it in a cool, dark place – not on your counter next to your stovetop — and using it up quickly.
"A big mistake a lot of consumers make is they don't realize that olive oil is a fresh fruit juice and you really want to consume it very liberally and quickly," said Lacina. "Don't feel like you need to save it. You're not doing yourself any favors by saving your good olive oils. Enjoy it when it's at its best."
Check out our collection of recipes featuring Olive Oil.