Olive Oil 101: How to Shop

Everything you need to know—from choosing to cooking—to help you enjoy this ancient, flavor-enhancing ingredient.

Published Aug. 2, 2023.

Everyone knows something about olive oil. 

But the level of chaos in that information is surprisingly high. You hear complicated stuff, even contradictory. There are a lot of special terms. What does “first cold pressed” even mean? Is there something bad that happens if you fry in it? (lowers voice to a whisper) Is it...adulterated? 

We’re going to go over that and make sure that you know everything you need to know. We spoke to experts in the field and tasted nearly three dozen premium extra-virgin olive oils from around the world to help you explore. We also tasted supermarket extra-virgin olive oil to find excellent everyday options.

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What You Need to Know

Olive oil is simply oil pressed from fresh olives, with no added ingredients. The fresher, the better. 

That said, olive oil is a lot like wine, coffee, and tea. Each starts with a simple ingredient, but the finished product is highly diverse. Olive oil has a broad range of flavor profiles depending on the type of olives, where they’re grown, how ripe they were when picked, and how carefully both the olives and oil are handled, among other factors. 

Consider this: There are an estimated 1,000 to 1,500 different olive cultivars, according to Olive Oil: A Field Guide (2014) by Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne, director of the Extra Virgin Alliance, the specialty olive oil section of the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA). 

The olives change in both color and flavor as they ripen. Knowing when to pick and press them is an art.

And that’s not all: The color and flavor of any olive changes as it ripens. The color turns from green to purple to black, while its flavor changes from grassy, bitter, pungent, and peppery to mellow and mild, buttery, and nutty. So, even the same olive—when picked at a different ripeness—will yield a different style of oil. 

Many people associate olive oil with Italy, but it comes from all over the planet. Spain is the largest producer by far, producing three times more than Italy, said Joanne Lacina, president of, a retail site. “Sixty-six countries make olive oil,” said Joseph R. Profaci, executive director of NAOOA. In the United States, California leads, but Texas, Oregon, Georgia, Florida, and Arizona also produce some. 

While there are a few styles that are typical of each country, none has a lock on “the best” olive oil; each offers a range of quality and flavors.

How Should Good Olive Oil Taste?

Olive oil will never improve with age. It should always smell and taste fresh and appealing. “Fruity aromas, a little bitterness on the tongue, a little tingling in the back of the throat; (flavors such as) apple, artichoke, fresh green grass; it should be nice and pleasant,” said Lacina. “You don’t want neutral flavor or oily residue on your tongue or in your mouth.”

We asked panels of tasters to evaluate each olive oil's flavor and aroma.

You don’t want any defective flavors, either. Those are “a sign it was mishandled, either crushed from old, moldy rotting olives or was stored improperly,” Lacina said. When that happens, the oil can taste musty or rancid: “Like the smell of crayons, or candle wax—that’s rancidity,” she explained. “It’s not an aroma or flavor you want in oil. Don’t even cook with it; those flavors will transfer into your food. Throw it out. It won’t kill you, but it’s not going to be pleasant to taste.”

It can be helpful to know what rancid olive oil is like, since description only goes so far. Here’s a DIY test: “Pour a little olive oil into a jar, leaving lots of airspace. Close and put the jar in the sun for a few days, then give it a whiff. Olive oil goes rancid very quickly under those conditions. Once you know what it smells like, you won’t forget,” Devarenne said.

The Different Types of Olive Oil

One of the reasons there is so much confusion around olive oil may be because there are a few grades or quality levels, each with its own name. Here’s how to interpret labels:

Many great recipes are made even better by a drizzle of good-quality olive oil. It doesn't matter if the oil is grassy or peppery or fruity; it will always bring out nuanced flavors.
  • Extra-Virgin Olive Oil: This is the highest grade and the best quality olive oil. It’s made only from olives where the oil is mechanically extracted without heat, which can change the oil’s quality, with no treatment other than washing, separation of water and solids from the oil, and filtration. Its flavor must have no defects and at least some olive fruitiness.
  • Olive Oil: Plain olive oil (with no “virgin” on the label) has far less flavor than extra-virgin oil. This oil used to be labeled “pure” olive oil, but the industry recently switched away from that in favor of simply calling it olive oil, Profaci said. Regular olive oil is made from the lowest grade virgin olive oil—the stuff that doesn’t meet the grade for sale as extra virgin or virgin grade because of off-aromas and flavors—further processed, filtered, and treated to make its flavor neutral. (In the industry this is called refined oil to distinguish it from virgin oil. This refining process is common to all the major cooking oils.) A small amount of virgin oil is added back to enhance flavor.
  • Light-Tasting Olive Oil: This used to be called “light olive oil,” but because it’s no “lighter” in calories or fat than regular oil, the industry recently shifted to labeling it “light-tasting” to avoid confusion. Like regular olive oil, this is a blend of refined oil and extra-virgin olive oil, with neutral flavor.
  • Olive Pomace Oil: You may find this inexpensive olive oil for sale in stores or online. It’s usually sold to restaurants (and makers of beauty products). Made from the leftovers of olive-oil production, where solvent is used to get one last extraction from the leftover pits, pulp, and skins, this oil is processed and refined for neutral taste.When sold for use in food service, a small amount of virgin olive oil is added for flavor.

How to Shop for Great Olive Oil

In the test kitchen we keep it simple. We typically reach for a good-tasting supermarket extra-virgin olive oil for any application from frying and baking to dressing salads and drizzling over finished dishes. To step up the results of unheated uses such as dressings and drizzling, we also love the option of using premium extra-virgin olive oil, which lends extraordinary fresh flavor. 

You can buy great olive oil at the supermarket, and you don't need to save it for special occasions. We use olive oil for everything from cooking vegetables to making a simple vinaigrette.

On the other end of the spectrum, if you want a neutral substitute for vegetable oil that still has the health benefits of olive oil’s monounsaturated fats, you could save money by choosing less-expensive regular (not extra virgin) olive oil or even “light-tasting” olive oil. The NAOOA recently surveyed American consumers about olive oil preferences and found that many gradually started seeking out more flavorful choices. “Maybe 40 percent started with lighter-tasting olive oils, but soon they were using extra virgin,” Profaci said. “It’s a gateway. We feel like, ‘Come in—jump into any depth of the pool and you will learn to swim. You’ll discover what you like and don’t.’” 

No matter what type of olive oil you choose for your kitchen, here are some tips to help you shop.

What to Look For

  • Opaque, Light-Blocking Bottles: Choose oils in dark or light-blocking containers. A new trend we’ve spotted: Many more products have recently switched to metal tins, or fully painted, opaque, or very dark glass bottles. Light spoils olive oil. When possible, choose glass bottles over plastic, since it’s more protective. If you do choose plastic, go for dark, light-blocking bottles. The clear glass bottle of one oil we tasted came in a box; keep the box.
Exposure to light is bad for olive oil. Seek out bottles that can be stored in boxes (left) or that comes in dark-colored bottles (right).
  • Harvest Dates or Best-By Dates: If you’re buying extra-virgin olive oil, remember that the best olive oil is fresh and seasonal, with a new crop arriving each year made from olives that are harvested annually. Check labels for the most recent harvest date: In the northern hemisphere, including Europe and the United States, olives are harvested and pressed in fall and winter (October through January) and oils released the following spring. In the Southern Hemisphere, such as in Australia and Chile, olives are harvested in May through June and the subsequent oils arrive in our Northern Hemisphere stores by fall. Failing that, check best-by dates. These are unregulated, so oils can be up to three years old and still within their best-by date—this is definitely not ideal in olive oil if you want fresh taste. The best retailers announce the latest harvest (and discount the previous year’s oil). 
  • Buy Usable Amounts: Don’t buy more olive oil than you’ll use in three or four months. An open bottle is a ticking clock; air and time spoil it. In that spirit, don’t hoard “the good oil” for special occasions: It’s a fresh product, so enjoy it.
Don’t hoard “the good oil” for special occasions: It’s a fresh product, so enjoy it.

What to Avoid

  • Clear Bottles: Clear bottles aren’t a great way to keep olive oil in prime condition over time. Clear bottles let in light that quickly degrades olive oil quality. Sunlight and fluorescents are a recipe for olive oil rancidity. 
It's important to gauge the freshness of olive oil before you buy it. Harvest dates (left) are best because you know exactly when the olives were harvested. Best-by dates (right) aren't as helpful as they seem because they can be years after the olive oil was made.
  • Older Olive Oil: If you can’t find a recent harvest date (within the past year) or a distant best-by date, walk away. The general idea is to look for last year on the harvest date. So if it’s 2023, look for a harvest date of 2022. That means it was harvested in the fall/winter of 2022 and is fresh. A few brands will include two years with a hyphen to indicate it was harvested anywhere from October to January (if it was a northern-hemisphere oil), but if the first year listed is two years ago, it’s older than it should be. A hyphenated date can also mean that oil can be from both hemispheres and therefore contain two totally different harvests. So a date of 2021-22 could mean that it contains a blend of oils from the northern hemisphere in October 2021 and the southern hemisphere from June 2022. It’s confusing; that’s why harvest dating with the month and year is more useful to consumers.
  • Bad Smell or Flavor: Olive oil should not taste sour, funky, or rancid, like crayons or sweaty socks. Avoid vinegary or winey, swampy, or musty notes. If your oil has these, take it back to the store.

Other Tips for Buying Olive Oil

  • Taste the Oil Directly After Purchase: Olive oil should smell and taste fresh, not rancid or funky. Just as you would if you found you’d bought spoiled milk, don’t keep it. “If it doesn’t taste [good], you can take it back to the store,” said Profaci. 
  • Stock More Than One Kind of Olive Oil: We don’t drink only one wine, and the same goes for olive oil. You might want to think of breaking olive oil in two categories: cooking and condiment oils. Some olive oil companies have begun labeling their oils accordingly, using terms such as “Sizzle” and “Drizzle” or “For frying” and “For salads.” The idea is to have an affordable “everyday” extra-virgin olive oil for cooking and at least one extra-flavorful premium oil to use raw as a drizzle or sauce atop foods and in salad dressings. If you’re doing a lot of deep frying, stock up on cheaper regular olive oil. Contrary to popular belief, olive oil’s smoke point is as high as that of many vegetable oils.

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