For the past several years, extra virgin olive oil has been revered as a healthy fat and a superfood that can reduce the risk for heart disease, diabetes, dementia, and a plethora of other ailments. The market for olive oil has taken off and, unfortunately, opened the doors for misleading (and sometimes dishonest) branding and packaging. That, in addition to improper storage has led to several bad bottles of olive oil in my cooking endeavors. It’s not good for the pocketbook, it can ruin the taste of food, and one misses out on all of those powerful health benefits that extra virgin olive oil has to offer. Because of this frustration, I sought out to learn more about how to select and store good quality olive oils. There is a wealth of information available from several strong resources (listed at the bottom of this post) and I am now much more confident when shopping.
I’ve included five of the most valuable tips I’ve learned for successful shopping below:
- Find a harvest date
A “best by” date isn’t necessarily accurate as olive oil begins to degrade 18 months after it is pressed and bottled. Since some companies mark the “best by” date as two years from its production, it’s more beneficial to look for a harvest date to ensure optimal freshness. Olive oil is different from other oils in that it is extracted from the juice of the olives and, like fruit juice, is best consumed as soon as possible after it is harvested. If it tastes rancid, it likely is. Even good quality oils will spoil within a year and a half.
- Look for an origin (not a packaging) source
Bottle labels should specifically state where the oil has been sourced. It should come from a single location. Beware of oils that use vague descriptors such as “bottled in Italy.” The oil could be coming from multiple areas, it could be a poor product, and there is no way to track when the oil was actually harvested. Some bottles are even stamped with a “Protected Designation of Origin” (PDO) label to ensure the oil’s origin.
- Choose oil packaged in dark glass
Avoid oils in clear glass or plastic containers as olive oil is easily damaged by light. Dark bottles protect the oil from destructive light and help to maintain its freshness and flavor. In addition to dark glass, olive oil should be stored away from heat and light.
- Buy extra virgin, but avoid “refined” oils
“Extra virgin” olive oil is the best grade available. As with all virgin olive oils, it is made mechanically and without the use of chemicals or excessive heating processes. However, the labels on bottles can be very misleading. Sometimes, the oil can be described as “refined.” It sounds harmless enough, but refined olive oil has often been processed with solvents to cover up unfavorable odors and flavors. This is done because the oil might have started out with olives of questionable quality, it could be a blend of low-grade oils, or it could be combined with highly processed oils to cover up any rancidity.
- Buy domestic
A 2010 study conducted by the Olive Center at the University of California, Davis, reported that 69% of supermarket olive oils labeled as “extra virgin” were lower quality grades being sold at the same expensive prices. In an effort to better enforce quality control of olive oil in the United States, the state of California Department of Food and Agriculture passed a mandatory standard for Californian olive oil production. When in doubt, trust a fresh bottle of oil harvested in California.
My personal favorite olive oil is California Olive Ranch Extra Virgin Olive Oil (pictured above). It is readily available at many grocery stores and I love its mildly spicy and grassy flavor.
Extra virgin olive oil can be a healthy and delicious staple for the kitchen, but it can be challenging to select a bottle worthy of consumption. In my experience, most olive oils in the baking aisles of standard supermarkets are not good quality products. I’m hopeful that this will change as we learn more and vote with the dollars we spend on groceries. I’m happy to report that after researching this topic, I have a whole new appreciation for extra virgin olive oil and I am gladly enjoying the fabulous delight that it can be. I hope you will as well.
A few of my favorite recipes featuring olive oil: