All Olive Oil is Not Created Equally
All Olive Oil is Not Created Equally

Learning more about olive oil will both inspire your cooking and surprise you. There is almost a scandalous aura around the olive oil industry, especially surrounding the foreign olive oils that we import to the United States. In 2010, there was a study conducted by the UC Davis Olive Center in conjunction with the Australian Oils Research Lab that discovered more than 69% of imported olive oils don't meet the standards of the USDA and the International Olive Council (IOC) for "Extra Virgin Olive Oils," which begs the question, "what have I been spending so much money on for all this time?" Upon further investigation, I discovered that olive oils that are not pure have appeared on the market since as early as the 24th century B.C. The financial incentive for this lucrative practice has been compared to the equally lucrative distribution of cocaine without the associated risks, which include but are not limited to jail time, rival drug lords, and those pesky distribution channel interruptions. 

High or Low Quality? Don't you hate it when someone recommends an expensive wine for you to try, only for you to spend the money and take one sip to discover you positively hate the wine? And of course, since it's been opened, you can't gift it to someone or return it. Olive oil is like that, too. You must cook from preference, you must like how it tastes, don't decide based on the supposed popularity or price point of the oil.

When choosing an oil that is right for you, it is almost like a trust exercise. You fall into it, selecting an oil for specific qualities and then decide if you like the taste or not. Of course, higher quality oil tends to be more expensive, but it is certainly worth it if you like the oil. You may get lucky and discover a cheaper bottle of good quality olive oil that you enjoy, or you might be one of those people that likes the $34 bottle. It's just how the cookie crumbles. 

Unfortunately, there are some dishonest manufacturers that are happy to sell Americans olive oil that is low quality because we have become accustomed to that flavor. Some Americans even prefer the taste of rancid olive oil because they have unwittingly been ingesting it their whole lives. If you see olive oil in a clear container, you know right off the bat that it is a low-quality olive oil. No good manufacturer would put olive oil in a clear container because they understand that light damages olive oil. This fact probably eliminates half or more of the olive oil shelf at the grocery store. You want to find a bottle of olive oil in a darker container; glass is probably your best bet. 

Low end producers will gravitate toward producing huge volumes of low quality olive oils. These practices are prevalent in larger European Union suppliers from Italy, Portugal, and Spain. The worst part about this is that most of these suppliers are marketing their lower quality product as the good stuff, which undercuts ethical oil producers. Red flag alert: no true Extra Virgin Olive Oil will ever cost less than a regular bottle of oil, no matter how many coupons you apply. If you want to test your Extra Virgin Olive Oil, put a small dish of it in the fridge for a few days. If it becomes crystalline over the course of its refrigeration, you've got your hands on a legitimate EVOO. If it forms a block, you have a chemically refined oil with some first press oil added. Producing a top-quality Artisan olive oil takes a considerable amount of time and money, so it is logical to assume it will cost more for the consumer to acquire it. 

Veer your shopping cart away from any olive oils marketed as "low fat." Olive oil is entirely composed of fat, and if it is lower in fat that means it has been altered in some way. This alteration could come from chemical processing or even a heated press, which is bad for the oil's composition. 

Self-proclaimed foodies in the United States, Canada and Europe have become more and more ravenous for high quality olive oil. Olive oils have numerous flavor profiles, just like apples and grapes do, and olive oil flavors are more frequently being likened to wine with their taste complexities. As the American palette becomes ever more sophisticated, there is an evolution taking place regarding United States produced olive oils. This movement is like the American grown and produced artisan cheese, craft beer, and local wines. People who consider eating good food to be an advanced art form are more likely to fork over extra cash for the high quality stuff, but they consider perceived value to be an important factor when they are selecting what to spend their money on. Of course, this kind of value is individually based, which brings me back to the advice of choosing an olive oil based on your own personal tastes. 

It is not unusual to see olive oil from outside of the United States on our shelves, though you may find California grown olives being advertised on the bottle. In this country, California is the leader in domestically grown olives, which were first planted in the 1700s on Catholic missions up and down the west coast. Over time, these olives became the variety that is canned and consumed as black olives. Only 2% of olive oil consumed by Americans is grown in California, but these olive oils are just as high quality as some of the foreign oils. Most of American consumed olive oils are imported from Italy, Chile, Spain, and Tunisia. 

What to Look For When choosing your olive oil, you'll want to look for the words "cold pressed" on the label. Cold pressing is when the olives have been crushed into olive paste without heat applied. Heat at this crushing stage would alter the olive's delicate flavor and cause flavor imperfections. Cold pressing is also considered the most hygienic because it is chemical free and does not expose the olive paste to air. The California Olive Oil Council standard calls for the oil to have been mechanically extracted from the olive without the aid of heat or chemicals to be considered a genuine cold press. Cold pressed olive oil is higher in polyphenols, vitamins, and antioxidants. 

Next, you want to be on the lookout for the time between harvest and when the olives were pressed. The best, most diligent farmers will only use olives they have plucked fresh from the tree and will never use olives that have fallen to the ground, considering that they are overripe. Ideally, olives should be pressed within 24 hours of being picked. To be qualified as "Extra Virgin" the olives must be picked and pressed quickly in an uncontaminated environment. 

What surprises people often is learning that color has little to do with the quality of an olive oil. Smell is a much better indicator- if the oil smells like candle wax or of crayons, your oil has gone bad. Now, obviously you cannot open olive oil in the middle of the store to test out its freshness, but if you get it home and discover it smells terrible, you should absolutely return it. Americans have become weirdly accustomed to eating rancid olive oil, as that is often what they are exposed to, so they tend to dismiss these telltale signs of rancidity. So, if you can't see the color of an olive oil in a darker container, you need not worry. 

As you learn more about olive oils, you may begin to gravitate toward blends or varietals. Blends are comprised of several types of olives. Different types of olive trees may be planted in the same place, so their delicate flavors can be combined at the time of pressing. Olive oil masters are extremely knowledgeable about the different varieties of olives and choose which to grow side by side based on their complementary flavors. European olive oils are often blended, so you must read fine print on a label to determine which olives were used.

Mono varietals or monocultivar olive oils come from olives of just one type. These oils are preferred by people who like to build their own flavors, and some of the most commonly used olives used in these types of oils are arbequina, arbossana, and koroneiki.  

What's the Best Olive Oil? Like I've said before, personal preference is key. Olive Oil Sommeliers, or people who are experts at determining olive oil quality look at three primary attributes when deciding quality measurement- fruitiness, pungency, and bitterness. Some of the flaws ascribed to low quality olive oils are flavors which are moldy, musty, flat or fermented. There have even been occurrences of olive oils tasting dirty, clearly an undesirable characteristic. 

Bitterness gives an acrid flavor to the tongue. Fruitiness is measured by the freshness and ripeness of the olives. This spicy fruit is pleasantly aromatic, floral, and mild when properly ripened. Pungency is measured by a peppery sensation present in the mouth and at the back of the throat. 

There are more than 700 types of olives, but each has its own flavor and those can vary from region to region because of soil type of where they are grown, climate, and the weather. These flavors can vary even over different harvest seasons. Olives are usually picked green, which is when they have a more robust flavor profile. Once they have ripened fully black, they lose some of their flavor. California grown olives are like chile peppers in the way that they mature from a green to a yellowish green, then red, then purplish black, then a very deep black color. 

If you can find the harvest date on the bottle of olive oil, not just the use by date, you are seeing another sign of top grade olive oil. You want to choose an olive oil that has been harvested in the last year, from a good climate region, the olive type, and country of origin. 

Green olives in the northern hemisphere in general are harvested beginning at the end of September all the way through to the middle of November. Blonde olives are harvested from mid-November to as late as early February. In Europe, harvesting is done in the winter, but the time varies from country to country. This just depends on the grower and the season. Olive oils from California are best when they are harvested and pressed from October to January. You want an olive oil that is made with 100 percent olives grown from a specific region, and steer clear of those that say "made in Italy" or "packed in California" as those are implied that the oil was simply processed there. The origin of the olives is neither guaranteed or easy to trace for the most part in these cases. 

Choose what size container of olive oil you will buy based on how fast you will use it. You want one that you will use up rapidly, versus the family sized bargain option which is more likely to go rancid on your shelf. Olive oil only lasts for about twelve to fourteen months after it has been pressed and does not age into a better product over time. Keep your olive oils away from heat and light, opting for a cool, dark storage space. Be sure not to keep your oils anywhere near the stove. If you are new to olive oil, you may find yourself looking for a sweeter, buttery oil, but be sure to give the more bitter oils a try, too. 

In well stocked kitchens, you may find several different types of olive oil. Early harvest olive oils are more robust and taste wonderful with bolder foods, like steak or garlic heavy dishes. Pasta dressed with some fresh, minced garlic and a nice early harvest olive oil are really all you need for a complex and flavorful meal. Keep a milder, late harvest variety on hand for lighter dishes like chicken, fish, or vegetables. Everyday olive oils are those used for everyday cooking, while finishing oils are those super delicious, high quality oils you would save for use in things like salad dressings or olive oil cakes, where you want the flavor to truly stand out. Flavored oils are usually not a good thing because some producers will try to mask the flavors of oils that are going bad with something else. There is an exception to this, and that is the agrumato olive oil. This is olive oil produced in the traditional way of milling whole citrus fruits with the olives at first press, giving the oils a lovely citrus flavor. 

Now that you are suspiciously eyeing the enormous, clear plastic bottle of two-year-old olive oil sitting next to your stove whose label proudly boasts "Made in Italy," perhaps it is time to go shopping for something better and in a smaller, darker glass container. Happy olive oil explorations.