ATK Reviews

How to Tell Good Olive Oil from Mediocre

Over the last 17 years I’ve tasted hundreds of olive oils. Here’s how to tell the good stuff from the mediocre.

Published Sept. 6, 2023.

I’ve been writing about olive oil for years—ever since my first story for Americas Test Kitchen in 2006. Since then I’ve written eight full-length features on olive oil. I honestly had no idea how delicious olive oil could be, or how many ways I’d learn to use it. 

Over the past few months Ive been at it again, holding tastings of nearly three dozen new extra-virgin olive oils for my latest articles Olive Oil 101: How to Shop and Are These Instagram-Famous Olive Oils Any Good?, and my reviews for the best Supermarket Olive Oil and Premium Extra-Virgin Olive Oil.

I still don’t know everything I could about olive oil, and I’ll never stop learning. But I have picked up a few tips that might be helpful. Here’s how to become a smarter consumer of olive oil and discover what you really enjoy.

First, watch this from my colleague Jack Bishop:

Tip #1: Avoid Old Olive Oil

This is the biggest single factor: With olive oil, you cant just keep it indefinitely in your cabinet. The fresher, the better. Olive oils are typically made once a year, theyre perishable, and they have a limited lifespan.

Check the label for a harvest date, or a “Best If Used By” date. Try to find a harvest date within the past year, or a “Best-By” date as far in the future as possible.

Even great oil can taste “meh” after months of sitting around in less than ideal conditions (see the next tip). If we all stick together on this as consumers, retailers and the olive oil trade will have to step up their game and work harder to provide fresher olive oil. 

A row of different olive oils

Tip #2: Learn What Rancid Oil Tastes Like

The best defense is a good offense: If you know what rancid, old oil tastes and smells like, you’ll never get stuck again.

Here’s a tip from olive oil expert Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne, author of Olive Oil: A Field Guide and president of the Extra Virgin Alliance. Alexandras top-notch taste buds are in demand world-wide as a judge at international competitions.

She says to think of the acronym H.A.L.T.

Heat, air, light, and time will wreck the best olive oil. 

Devarenne suggested this test: Grab a clean empty jar, add a teaspoon of olive oil, cap it, swirl it around to coat the sides and put it in the sun on your windowsill. After a week or two, open that jar and give it a whiff.

It’ll have a distinctive smell, like varnish, putty, old walnuts, or crayons. These are just a few of the ways people have tried to describe rancid olive oil. Rancidity is more obvious in the mouth, so if you have any doubt, take a tiny sip. If the next bottle of olive oil you buy reminds you of this little DIY horror show, take it back to the store. (Also, lesson learned: Store olive oil in a cool, dark place, tightly capped, and use it up promptly.)

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Tip #3: Good Olive Oil Doesn’t Mean Intense

Olive oil comes in a huge range of intensity levels. Depending on the kind of olive, how ripe it was when picked, and a bunch of other factors, it can be as varied as different types of coffee, tea, or wine.

For example, if you once tried a big, grassy, pungent, peppery, intense olive oil that you didn’t like, don’t swear off olive oil.

And dont conflate grassy with good. There are mellow, buttery, nutty olive oils that will wow you. Look for oils described as “mild” intensity, made from riper, later-harvest olives. 

If youre truly interested in becoming a better olive oil consumer, I suggest reading up. For many more tips and lots of information to help you become a smarter shopper and find your personal olive oil bliss, read our latest olive oil guide

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