A Pressing Issue - How to Select Great Olive Oil

Jonathan Harris | April 2016

Extra virgin olive oil is miraculous. Not only is it delicious, but every day new evidence shows that it is the Superman of oils - fighting heart disease, cholesterol, cancer and even diabetes! But most extra virgin olive oils on the market are like Superman holding kryptonite, because they have been mistreated, diluted or adulterated. 

After spending twenty years importing olive oil from Spain, we've learned how to choose the very best extra virgin olive oils. We’ve walked olive orchards at harvest time and watched as the ripe olives, bright green and walnut brown, are shaken from the gnarled branches of the olive trees. We’ve witnessed how our partners in Spain hurry their olives to the mill so that the oil is extracted just hours after leaving the tree. Making great extra virgin olive oil is an art, from carefully tending the trees, all the way to bottling under ideal conditions.

Now, what exactly is extra virgin olive oil? Olives are a pitted fruit, like a cherry or a peach, so olive oil is fundamentally a fruit juice. Fresh, pure fruit juice is the tastiest and most healthy, of course. In the case of olive oil, ‘extra virgin’ refers to fresh olives pressed soon after harvest with no heat or chemical processing. If you see olive oil called 'pure,' 'virgin,' 'light' or 'extra light,' you are getting oil extracted by heat or chemicals, heavily filtered and perhaps mixed with a splash of extra virgin oil for flavor.

Imagine visiting a cider house in the mountains of Vermont. You watch as a bushel of freshly picked apples from a nearby orchard is added to a press. The cider master squeezes the fruit and you are handed a tall glass of cider. Now imagine that he grinds up the leftover peels, pulp, seeds and stems from the first pressing, then adds them to a cauldron where the mass is heated, then spun in a centrifuge to extract every last drop. You are then given a glass of this cider. Which would you choose? 

The best extra virgin olive oil is harvested at the peak of ripeness, or even earlier, and pressed within hours. This is key, because over-ripe olives suffer more oxidation, changing the flavor and reducing its healthful properties. This presents a conundrum to the olive farmer, because over-ripe olives yield much more oil, so earlier harvest costs them in volume. Therefore it is more expensive to get higher quality - imagine that! We find that it is almost impossible to buy a bottle of quality olive oil for less than $10, and truly excellent oils cost quite a bit more. If you are a wine drinker you will understand - a $28 bottle of Cabernet is often worlds better than an $8 bottle.

Because extra virgin olive oil is pure juice with no preservatives, freshness is key. All of the healthful antioxidants and vitamins begin to break down over time, so it is important to note the best-by date on any bottle of olive oil. Best-by dates can be up to two years after harvest, so choose the oil with the longest time until this date. Even better is to look for a harvest date. Olives in the northern hemisphere are harvested in late fall, so it is optimal to have a harvest date within the last 12 months. 

Acidity is also important. High acid levels speak to olives that were damaged or bruised, and generally signals low quality and bad flavor. Extra virgin olive oil must by law have very low acidity, under 0.8%. Most of our olive oils are well under 0.2%.

As you may have read, there are some pirates in the olive oil business who disguise mediocre oil as premium extra virgin. These counterfeiters are in a volume game, taking inferior product and selling containers of it for a small profit on each bottle. The best way to avoid these oils is to buy from a small olive oil producer committed to quality. You can also look for certifications that deter the crooks. One is the DOP label or Protected Denomination of Origin. In Europe this means that local government organizations inspect and certify producers to ensure the quality of olive oils from their home regions. Another is certified Organic oils, which also come under a lot of scrutiny.

When shopping for extra virgin olive oil, the best strategy is to find a trusted seller, such as a boutique market, where you can taste the oils and learn from the proprietor about each oil. We feature a flight of extra virgin olive oils for tasting in our store in Williamsburg, VA for instance. We are also fortunate enough to have visited suppliers in Spain and seen their harvests first hand. We've become friends with the growers, and know that their olives are picked in small batches and pressed very soon after harvest. So, if you don't have a trusted local source, we guarantee that our olive oils are sourced from small companies with quality as their top priority.

How should olive oil taste? Because there are hundreds of types of olives, intensity of flavor can vary. As a rule of thumb, the oil should smell fresh and herbal, similar to fresh cut grass. Color is less important, but the oil should range from golden to green, but never brown. The flavors of olive oil can vary widely, but it should be well balanced, with fruity and herbal notes in concert with fresh bitterness. There should always be a bit of pepperiness, especially at the back of your throat - this comes from the antioxidants that can only be found in fresh extra virgin olive oil. 

What can you do to properly care for your olive oil at home? The most important rule is to use it! Enjoy the oil within weeks of opening the bottle. A few years ago I was horrified to spot a great bottle of early harvest extra virgin olive oil gathering dust above the stove at a relative's house - and I had given them the oil years before! Olive oil is not for special occasions - enjoy it while it is fresh and delicious. 

The best way to store your extra virgin oil is in a dark, cool place. You can even refrigerate olive oil, though it will appear cloudy once it is cool and will need to be warmed to room temperature to pour. Heat and light kill flavor and health benefits, so a sunny countertop or stovetop storage place are the last place to leave your bottle. 

For millennia the people of Spain have enjoyed extra virgin olive oil as the foundation of their diet. Almost every traditional recipe calls for it - it is even drizzled on toast for breakfast. With the mounting evidence of its amazing health benefits, many in Spain even drink a shot of olive oil every day, like a super-vitamin boost!

We don't go to that extreme at home. But it is surprisingly easy to replace other oils in your diet for use on salads, pastas, for sautéing or in recipes for soup or stew. It is important to note that most cooking oils, even the "healthy" ones like canola, are refined and chemically processed with hexane, a petroleum product. Replacing these oils with the pure juice of olives just makes sense. There is also a myth that olive oil shouldn't be used for frying, which is untrue - though filling a deep fryer with extra virgin olive oil might be a bit pricey!

Extra virgin olive oil is truly a super-food. As with wine, olive oil comes in a bounty of different styles and flavors, bringing a tasty sense of discovery to your kitchen and table. It is also amazingly good for you. One large study in Spain was stopped early because the health benefits of extra virgin olive oil were so clear that it was deemed unethical to not give olive oil to all of the participants! With a little extra effort, you can select a high quality extra virgin olive oil that will bring more flavor and health to your life.