What to Look for When Buying Olive Oil

Olive oil is a star ingredient of the Mediterranean Diet and a healthy, delicious choice for dressings and marinades, for drizzling over roasted vegetables, pastas, and much more. Here's what you should know when choosing a bottle of olive oil from the grocery or specialty foods store.

Bottle of Olive oil pouring close up
Photo: dulezidar/Getty Images

As olive oil grows in popularity, so do the brand options at the grocery store. Fortunately, finding a favorite olive oil or two isn't difficult. Mostly it involves delicious experimentation. But each bottle holds several indicators that can tell you about what's in the bottle and help you make your decision. Here are a few things to look for.

For flavor, Stick with extra virgin

When picking out an olive oil, you can't beat extra virgin oil for almost any fresh use. It is unrefined, and before it can be classified as extra virgin, it goes through several quality checks to make sure it has met certain standards. And what about the infamous "low smoke point" of extra virgin olive oil? Well, recent research is beginning to question that long-held but likely false assumption. Our own anecdotal "research" confirms as much. We love to pan fry fish, meats, potatoes, and other vegetables in extra virgin olive oil, with delicious results.

Pay attention to the color of the bottle

Color is important for olive oil, but maybe not in the way you think. Surprisingly, it's the bottle's color that matters most – the color of the oil itself doesn't always speak to quality.

Because light can deteriorate olive oil, look for a bottle that is opaque and made out of dark metal or glass. "No serious 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.

Check out the label

"Best by" or "use before" dates on olive oil bottles aren't all that helpful. A more significant date 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. "Top producers will telegraph that and have a harvest date on it."

Also, pay attention to where the olive oil was produced and bottled. "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."

Use your senses

It might seem strange to drink olive oil, but sipping olive oil on its own, and particularly alongside other olive oils, is one of the surest ways to appreciate nuances in flavor and discover and develop your taste preferences. 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 sipping olive oil seems like a little much, grab a loaf of your favorite bread and dunk away! Dunking bread into a shallow bowl of olive oil with a sprinkle of sea salt and maybe a pinch of red chile-pepper flakes is one of our favorite ways to enjoy fresh olive oil!

If your oil smells of crayons or leaves an oily, waxy film in your mouth, that means it's gone bad and it's time to throw it out.

Once you find the right olive oil, Lacina says to be sure to treat it right. Oxygen and heat are, like light, the enemies of olive oil. Store your olive oil in a cool, dark place — not on your counter next to your stovetop — and use it up quickly. As soon as it is exposed to the air, olive oil will start to deteriorate. Once opened, it should be consumed in two to three months.

"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.


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