How to Choose the Best Olive Oil: Expert Tips

How to Choose the Best Olive Oil: Expert Tips

Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne

Buy first cold press! First cold press means nothing! (Fill in the blank) makes the best olive oil! The worst olive oil! ...Help!

Finding the best olive oil means finding the best olive oil for you. There are some good basic guidelines to help you find a high-quality extra virgin olive oil, but ultimately you need to try them and see what you think.  It's a good idea to start by asking this basic question:

What am I going to use this olive oil for?

Olive oil for cooking:

Contrary to popular myth, extra virgin olive oil is a great cooking oil. There is evidence that the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil are retained in cooking, and that nutrients in the food can be made more available. But cost might be a factor if you use a lot of extra virgin for cooking (as you should, we might add!). The truth is that a lot of the complex flavors and aromas of the best extra virgin olive oil will evaporate when exposed to heat, and so will any slight off-notes an oil might have. So if you are choosing an olive oil primarily for cooking or marinades that will go onto the grill, it's fine to economize and search the grocery store for a less expensive everyday extra virgin olive oil or even a regular olive oil that you like. The money you save can go to choosing a pricier oil—or two—for drizzling!

Olive oil for raw use:

This is where you should splurge if you can! A flavorful premium quality extra virgin olive oil is best appreciated when used for salad dressing and bread dipping, to replace butter on veggies, rice and potatoes, and for finishing dishes after they come off the heat. You can even experiment matching the flavor profile of different extra virgin olive oils to your dish and explore the delicious world of olive oil pairing!

To give you an idea what olive oil professionals think of various oils, the expert tasting team at OliveOil.com has independently reviewed—no affiliate links, no sales, no payments—80 olive oils so far; you can find all of these in our Olive Oil Reviews section.

The other question you can ask yourself when olive oil shopping is this:

What are my priorities?

Price:

The reality is that sometimes, watching the budget is all that matters. There are lots of less expensive options available, some of which are quite good. If you are trying to save money, scrimp on your cooking olive oil and spend a bit more, if you can, on the extra virgin olive oil for salads, drizzling, etc. Our olive oil reviews have a number of great value EVOOs for you to try.

Protecting the environment:

First off, if you care about protecting the environment then olive oil is a great choice. Olive trees sequester carbon really well and are drought tolerant, and virgin olive oil is a minimally processed food made without the use of chemicals or high heat. All those other vegetable oils? Yeah, aggressively refined so they will taste neutral. You can choose a certified organic extra virgin olive oil, but also be aware that there are many producers who are not certified organic but do grow in integrated and sustainable ways, demonstrating good stewardship of the land. Visit their websites and learn more. There are some certification programs for reduced carbon footprint, wildlife care, water conservation, etc, that can help validate claims—or just read carefully.

If you are lucky enough to live near an olive oil producing region, you can buy from local producers to reduce the miles traveled between their field and your fork. This has the added advantage of allowing you the possibility of meeting your olive oil farmer—always a fun and rewarding thing to do!

Supporting the farmers:

Farming is hard, and the biggest risk in agriculture rests with the independent farmer. Unlike the big brand that can source olive oil from all over the place, the olive oil farmer is tied to their land, the weather and the crop of that year. If you are one of those people living near an olive oil region, it's easy to find local farmer-producers to support, but there is a bigger picture as well for those in non-olive oil producing areas. In this age of easy online shopping you can opt to buy direct—or through an online shop—from someone located far away. Pay attention when evaluating these online brands. Some are genuine olive oil farmer-producers that will be eager to share the details of their farms. Others are just in the olive oil buying and bottling business. Snoop around a little to identify which ones are the real deal!

Although California extra virgin olive oil from real farmer-producers is an obvious choice for people in the US, you don't have to stop there. There are authentic, wonderful extra virgin olive oils made by passionate and dedicated producers all over—let your palate explore the world!

Health benefits:

If you want to maximize the health benefits, choose extra virgin olive oil. And if you like the taste, you can lean towards the more robust flavor profile oils. Bitterness and pepperiness are signs of higher polyphenols, a healthful class of compounds. But all olive oil is good for you, so don't beat yourself up if you prefer a mild flavor!

Flavor:

Let the party begin! If you are focused on flavor there is a world of enjoyment awaiting you. The best advice here is to taste lots of different olive oils: from many olive varieties, originating in various regions, and of different flavor styles. You will find a garden of olive fruity flavors to appreciate, from mild nutty and buttery riper oils to peppery intense early harvest oils with grassy, artichoke, tomato leaf and other vegetal notes.

What to look for in an extra virgin olive oil

Olive oil bottles can be confusing! Our extra virgin olive oil label infographic is a quick guide to what is important and what is not. Here are the main items to notice in your search for a good olive oil.

  • Dark glass or other light protection: This is a critical issue for olive oil preservation. Exposure to UV light is a major cause of rancid olive oil. Buy your extra virgin olive oil in a can, dark or coated glass bottle, or a bag-in-box. Clear glass is only acceptable if it's sold in a box or wrapped in foil.
  • Best Before or Harvest date: The perception of freshness is part of what makes olive oil wonderful. Look for a Best Before or Harvest date. A well-made, well-conserved extra virgin olive oil should have a two-year shelf life before opening so don’t automatically reject oils from a previous harvest, but when you can, get the most recent harvest (Oct-Jan in the Northern Hemisphere, Apr-Jun in the Southern Hemisphere). Once you open a bottle of olive oil, use it up in a couple of months. Look for a “Best Before” date as far in the future as possible. And always, if an olive oil turns out to be rancid—whatever the date—return it for a refund.
  • Price: If it seems too cheap, be wary. Extra virgin olive oil costs more to produce, so expect to pay more for it. You might find an inexpensive EVOO (possibly even “virgin” grade, with some minor flavor faults) that works great for cooking. But for your raw applications, you may want to pay for a high-quality option—get the best extra virgin olive oil you can afford. You deserve it!
  • Farmer-producer brands and Estate Production: Try to buy brands that actually make the olive oil. “Estate” is not consistently regulated in olive oil, but it should mean that the brand owner grew the olives used for that product. There are also extra virgin olive oils that are estate grown, milled and bottled—check the label. The extra virgin olive oil brands that belong to the people who grew the olive trees and made the oil, or who worked in close partnership with the farmers and miller to control quality, are more likely to be higher in quality—and price. Check out the brand website to learn more about the people behind the brand, but again, pay attention; there is some flashy olive oil marketing malarky out there!
  • Single region of origin: Higher quality oils will usually come from a single region. Front labels are not always a good indication: check the back label for the actual origin of the oil, which is often stated in abbreviations: IT for Italy, ES for Spain, GR for Greece, PT for Portugal, etc. If multiple countries are listed, there is a greater chance that the product is a commodity oil from a brand that is primarily a packer, not an actual olive oil producer. Read the label carefully so you know what you are buying; many brands are not what they seem. That said, many of the big supermarket brands are working hard to improve quality so it is worth tasting around for products that suit your different needs (such as cooking vs raw use).
  • Quality/certification/marketing programs & seals: There are a number of quality seals that have varying standards and monitoring practices. In addition to chemistry standards for things like free acidity, most of these programs indicate that trained tasters have evaluated the oils. These include Olive Oil Commission of California (OOCC), North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA), California Olive Oil Council (COOC), Extra Virgin Alliance (EVA) and others. Also in this category are the European Union “Protected Designation of Origin” programs (PGI, PDO, DO, or AOC). These guarantee that the oil was produced in a specific region using traditional olive varieties. For example in a PGI Tuscany extra virgin olive oil, the production must take place within that region and the oil must come from the designated list of Tuscan olive varieties that includes Frantoio, Leccino, Moraiolo, Maurino, Pendolino and 27 others.
  • Additional information: The presence of more information, including farm location and agricultural practices, olive varieties, and milling details (the term for processing of olives into olive oil) is usually a good sign. A dedicated producer will want you to know everything about this extra virgin olive oil that represents not just their business but their passion! Conversely, you can disregard some things like "Non-GMO" (there are no GMO olives) and "Vegan" (all olive oil contains no animal products), and be skeptical of polyphenol counts, acidity levels, etc; as pointed out in our label guide, these might be useful chemical parameters but tell a consumer very little.
  • The final verdict—taste: Extra virgin olive oil should taste fresh and fruity, with the flavors of healthy fresh olives, ripe or green. There should be no rancid flavor (stale walnuts, crayons) or fermentation (feta cheese, sweaty socks, too-wet compost). Remember that bitterness is not a fault; it is a natural taste in fresh green olives and is a great flavor enhancer with the right foods, such as a hearty bean soups or tomato-based sauces.

The bottom line

Enjoy yourself! Olive oil is a wonderful food: healthy, delicious and fun to learn about. Explore and experiment if you have the chance. And don't be intimidated: if it tastes good to you, that's what matters!