While standing in the olive oil aisle, scanning the rows of glittering bottles, it’s easy to feel a sense of overwhelm wash over. How exactly fo you pick the best olive oil? Is it about looking for those award-winning labels? Are you looking for something from Italy, Greece, or, hey, why not Texas? Are you looking for a spicy, full-bodied EVOO or something with some acidity? And you haven’t even reached the white truffle or jalapeno infusions yet...
Before you go ahead and pick up pretty bottle and head to checkout – which could work out swimmingly – there are a few questions you should answer. Here’s an easy guide to how to select gourmet olive oil.
Question #1: Do you want EVOO, virgin olive oil, or regular olive oil?
By now you already know: different varietals of oil are used for different applications.
Before you narrow down your options, it helps to decide whether you want extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), virgin olive oil, or pure/regular olive oil (and all of these can also be organic olive oil!).
As this is gourmet olive oil shopping, most of your options will be of the extra virgin variety. EVOO is considered the ultra premium crème de la crème of the olive oil world. It is made only with mechanical methods, which means it is never exposed to heat or chemicals.
EVOO is also cold-pressed and unrefined, which means it retains high levels of bioactive compounds. Research has shown that this gourmet food ingredient may have benefits for heart health, cancer prevention, cognitive health, and more. You can read all about the health benefits of EVOO here.
These prized olive oils often have a light gold-to-greenish hue, a floral or grassy aroma, and a peppery finish that you can even feel in the back of your throat. Some are full-bodied, while others are light. Some recall fruity flavors like fresh apples, while others have tasting notes of Tuscan herbs, arugula, and perhaps a hint of tomato leaf.
EVOO is also incredibly versatile. It can be used in homemade salad dressing, as a dipping sauce for bread, a finishing oil on some baked veggies, or just taken by the spoonful on its own to double-down on the health benefits. You can use EVOO at higher temperatures – its smoke point is (350° to 410° F) – so you can use it for sautéing, roasting, light frying, or baking.
If you’re shopping for the good stuff, odds are you’ll want to stick to the EVOOs. However, you might encounter the other grades of olive oil: virgin olive oil, regular/pure olive oil, or light olive oil. Here’s a primer on each of those.
Virgin Olive OIl
Virgin olive oil is another olive oil worth considering. It’s similar to EVOO in most ways, but with a few key differences. Virgin olive oil is also mechanically produced and cold-pressed, so it is packed with health benefits as EVOO.
When compared to EVOO, virgin olive oil is allowed to have some minor defects in flavor, which many of us might not even notice. In fact, you might find a virgin olive oil you love. This category has a wide range of aromas and flavors, with some being even more intense than EVOO.
Virgin olive oil is also rarer than EVOO, so you might not even come across it!
How to use virgin olive oil: You can use virgin olive oil in all the same ways you would use EVOO: on salads, as a dipping sauce, for a finishing oil, for light cooking, etc.
Regular/Pure Olive Oil
Regular olive oil, sometimes labeled as “olive oil” or “pure olive oil” is less likely to be among the “gourmet” options. That said, many chefs prefer to use it for cooking because of its higher smoke point (~470° F).
How to use regular olive oil: Use it for your cooking, like sautéing, roasting, baking, searing, grilling, pan frying, and even deep frying. As regular olive oil maintains some health benefits, it’s a healthier olive oil for cooking than many other options on the market.
Light Olive Oil
Light olive oil doesn’t mean that it’s low in fat or calories – it means it has been treated to be very neutral in flavor. For that reason, you won’t find any light olive oils when shopping for the good stuff. As Claire Saffitz told Bon Appetit, “If you're looking for an oil that doesn't taste or smell like anything, you're better off buying a cheap neutral oil like peanut or grapeseed.”
How to use light olive oil: Use it for your cooking, like sautéing, roasting, baking, searing, grilling, pan frying, and even deep frying, especially alongside sharper flavors like aged parmesan. As its flavor is so neutral, you can even use it to fry sweets and other delicate dishes.
Question #2: What’s your budget?
Olive oils range from less than $10 in the grocery store to the triple digits. Lambda, one of the most expensive olive oils in the world, goes for $185 per liter. This olive oil is made in Kritsa, Crete, home to some of the oldest olive trees in Greece.
Of course, there are also olive oils at every price point in between. We have gourmet olive oils at less than $20, like the Arte Olearia Mantuano Riserva Extra Virgin Olive Oil, as well as pricier bottles, like the Tamia Caninese Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil at just under $40.
Question #3: Do you want an infused olive oil or a pure olive oil?
In specialty food shops, you might see rows of beautiful bottles with lemon rinds or bouquets of herbs floating in liquid gold. These are the infused olive oils.
While they’d certainly look lovely in your kitchen, will infused olive oils like roasted garlic olive oil really take your cooking up a notch?
Maybe! You won’t be using your infused olive oil for cooking, though. Instead, use flavored olive oil as a dipping oil paired with an aged balsamic vinegar, to drizzle over bread, to top a soup, or to make a vinaigrette. If that’s up your alley, you can find olive oils infused with garlic, lemon, rosemary, basil, and more.
Pro tip: If you’d like to invest in a more versatile EVOO, it’s easy to make your own infusions. Here’s how:
Start with an olive oil with a relatively mild, buttery flavor rather than a bold, peppery profile. That way, it’s easier to make your chosen flavor shine.
Next, what are you flavoring the oil with? Use a cold infusion method on fresh ingredients, like delicate herbs such as cilantro or fresh peppers. Bon Appetit suggests using one cup of loosely packed herbs to a quart of oil, depending on the strength of the herb.
Use a heated infusion method on hardier ingredients, like thyme, rosemary, and lemon rinds. Learn how to make your own olive oil infusion here.
Question #4: How intense would you like your olive oil?
EVOO varies greatly in flavor. You can find bottles that are intense, medium, delicate, or somewhere in between.
Some olive oils are so peppery you can feel them in the back of your throat. In fact, some say that the more you cough the higher quality of the olive oil! Of course, that flavor could overpower a more delicate dish. If that’s the case, go for something more mild. Here are a few options to consider.
Delicate: PJ Kabos Greek Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Question #5: What tasting notes are you looking for?
Intensity isn’t the only factor in play. Olive oils can have many tasting notes, from vegetal to buttery. Brush up on the lingo below. If you aren’t sure what you like, try hosting an olive oil tasting party to get to know the landscape.
Vegetal (tomato leaf)
Herbaceous (fresh green herbs)
Question #6: Should you consider the country of origin?
Maybe! Perhaps you know you love Tuscan olive oil, which is consistently ranked among the best in the world. Perhaps you love Spanish olive oil, which tends to be fruitier.
Or maybe you’d like to branch out and try something new like Sicilian, or maybe even further, like the olive oils from Morocco, the sixth-largest producer of olive oil in the world. To support the smaller guys, try domestic olive oil from Texas or Oregon, and keep an eye out for limited edition batches and infusions they seem to love to put out. While these destinations may not have the instant name recognition of Italian olive oils, they have been winning international awards, making for a nice gourmet gift to yourself.
Bonus Tip: Look for a dark bottle.
Here’s a pro tip: light can degrade olive oil. We recommend choosing an olive oil in a dark glass bottle or a tin. To that point, keep in mind that olive oil does not get better with age. When you open up a new bottle, use it promptly for the freshest flavor and aroma.
Bonus Tip: Don’t worry too much about the color.
If you can see through the bottle, don’t allow yourself to be swayed by the color of the oil. A popular opinion is that the greener the oil, the better the quality. While there are many lovely olive oils that do have a grassy hue, it’s not essential.