Olive oil, which is simply juice pressed from olives, has been an important part of Mediterranean cooking for thousands of years. The highest grade, called extra-virgin, is lively, bright, and full- bodied, with flavors ranging from peppery to buttery depending on the varieties of olives used and how ripe they were when harvested. In the Mediterranean, Spain is the leading producer of olive oil, followed by Italy and Greece. In the United States, California is the top producer (and in fact is the source of our winning supermarket extra-virgin olive oil).
All About Olive Oil: Shopping, Cooking & Storing
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Olive oil tastes great when it’s fresh. But olives are highly perishable, and their complex flavor degrades quickly, which makes producing—and handling—a top-notch oil time-sensitive, labor-intensive, and expensive. Here's what else you should know about olive oil.
Why Olive Oil Is Good for You
We use extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO) as our main cooking oil as well as in raw applications. Olive oil supports one of the main pillars of the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid: to eat more healthy fats and fewer saturated fats.
- It is high in monounsaturated fatty acids, which are healthy fats.
- It contains important minor components including antioxidants and other beneficial phytochemicals, plant-derived compounds thought to protect against disease.
- Studies have also shown that people who regularly include olive oil in their diets have lower rates of heart disease, lower blood pressure, and reduced rates of diabetes and some cancers.
How to Use Olive Oil
Extra-virgin olive oil is of course a starring player in salad dressings, but we also use it as a condiment on vegetables, pastas, bean dishes, and grilled fish, and as a source of richness and body in soups and sauces. Since olive oil is a pricey purchase, we use what we term “supermarket” extra-virgin olive oil for everyday cooked applications and save the most flavorful “high-end” EVOO for drizzling.
The Smoke Point of Olive Oil
Although conventional wisdom says that you shouldn’t cook with olive oil since its smoke point is low, we have found that this is not the case. With a smoke point of 410 degrees, extra-virgin olive oil is fine for most cooking applications, even frying. However, we don’t usually use olive oil for frying because it is not economical to use in large quantities.
How to Buy Olive Oil
Buying extra-virgin olive oil in American supermarkets can be a tricky business. The standards of the International Olive Council (IOC), the industry’s worldwide governing body, are not enforced in the U.S., and a widely reported 2010 study from the Olive Center at the University of California, Davis, revealed that 69 percent of tested supermarket olive oils sold as “extra-virgin” were actually lesser grades being passed off at premium prices.
Since then, the U.S. olive oil industry has taken steps to be more stringent. The state of California, where olive oil production has grown tenfold over the past decade, passed the California Department of Food and Agriculture olive oil standard in 2014. The most stringent standard in the country, it is mandatory for medium-and large-scale California olive oil production. In 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) adopted chemical and sensory standards for olive oil grades similar to those established by the IOC. The USDA standard, however, is voluntary and rarely enforced, so choosing the right extra-virgin olive oil is a challenge, to say the least.
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The Best Supermarket Olive Oil
To find the best “everyday” olive oil, we tasted 10 supermarket extra-virgin olive oils plain, with bread, over tomatoes and mozzarella, and in vinaigrette served on salad greens. We also sent each of the oils to an independent laboratory for chemical evaluation and to 10 trained olive oil tasters to get a second opinion on their flavor quality.
These are our top two choices, which we liked for their similar crowd-pleasing flavor profile that was bright and medium-fruity, with a lightly peppery aftertaste:
- California Olive Ranch Destination Series Everyday Extra Virgin Olive Oil
California Olive Ranch built its reputation on California-grown olives planted in high-density hedges that could be quickly machine-harvested at their peak and pressed within hours. But the state could not produce enough olives to meet demand, so, according to a company spokesperson, the company found sources in Portugal, Chile, and Argentina that grow and harvest the same type of olives in the same way. It then imports these oils to blend and bottle them in California with a small amount of local oil.
- Bertolli Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Original, Rich Taste
The Bertolli oil was a pleasant surprise. When we last tasted supermarket extra-virgin olive oil four years ago, Bertolli’s offering ranked dead last; tasters called it “flat” and “dull.” What changed? We spoke to the executive director of the North American Olive Oil Association, Joseph R. Profaci, who said that Bertolli has been making a push to improve quality. Other signs of the changes: In 2017, Bertolli named a new CEO and vice president of sales for its North American operations. And the oil, with a redesigned label, is now sold in a dark green bottle instead of a clear one, which helps block light that can degrade oil. Like the California Olive Ranch product, this oil now lists a harvest date on the bottle. In fact, it was the most recently harvested oil in our lineup. All these changes contributed to a bright, fruity, fresh-tasting oil that our tasters appreciated in every application.
The Best High-End Olive Oil
We tasted 10 premium olive oils and thought they were all worth every penny. But we did single out one particular crowd-pleaser with ultrasmooth flavor: Gaea Fresh.
We learned that when it comes to high-end olive oils, more expensive ones aren’t always better. Gaea Fresh hails from Greece and, at half the price of some of the other oils in our tasting lineup, won’t break the bank. It won points with tasters for its bold yet nicely balanced flavor. We recommend using this oil in raw applications only.
Types of Olives Used to Make Olive Oil
There are over a thousand varieties of olives with a few dozen cultivated varieties that are commercially dominant. Some of the most commonly found varieties in the U.S. market are Arbequina and Picual from Spain, Koroneiki from Greece, and Coratina from Italy. Arbequina is noted for its ripe fruitiness, low bitterness, and pungency. Picual is very fruity with medium bitterness and pungency. Koroneiki is strongly fruity and herbaceous, with mild bitterness and pungency. Coratina is strongly green, herbaceous, bitter, and pungent.
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How to Keep Olive Oil Fresh
These three things can help you assess the quality of an extra-virgin olive oil before you buy it.
- Harvest Date: A “best by” date might be 24 to 32 months after the oil was bottled, which in turn can be one to two years after it was pressed—so by the time that “best by” date rolls around, the oil could be about four years old. A harvest date is a more precise indication of freshness, since olive oil begins to degrade about 18 months after harvest. Look for the most recent date (certainly within the last 12 months), and note that in Europe and the United States, olives are harvested in the fall and winter, so most bottles list the previous year.
- Dark Glass: Avoid clear glass; dark glass shields the oil from damaging light. Avoid clear plastic, too; it’s not a good barrier to light or air.
- Oil Origin: Bottlers often print where their oil has been sourced from on the label; look for oil that has been sourced from a single country.
How to Store Olive Oil
Here's how to store olive oil:
- Never keep olive oil on your kitchen counter, since strong sunlight will oxidize the chlorophyll in the oil, producing stale, harsh flavors.
- Keeping your olive oil next to the stove is also a bad idea as heat accelerates spoilage.
- We recommend storing oil in a dark pantry or cupboard; do not store olive oil in the fridge, as it can become cloudy, thick, and viscous and can take a few hours to return to normal.
- You can keep unopened oil for about a year; but once opened, it lasts only about three months—so don’t buy in bulk. And if possible, check the harvest date to ensure the freshest bottle possible.
To check for freshness, pour a little oil in a small glass and sniff it. If it reminds you of crayons or stale walnuts, toss it.
For more information on the Mediterranean Diet, read the following posts: