How To Choose Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Bottle of olive oil

Extra virgin olive oil -- cold pressed -- first pressed -- unfiltered -- light -- pure -- choosing olive oil has become almost as daunting as choosing wine. The way you want to use the oil determines how you choose the oil. Some olive oils are better for frying and sautéing, while others should be used exclusively for drizzling over a dish seconds before serving.

  1. Know how you want to use the particular oil. Olive oil can be used for marinades and salad dressings, frying and sautéing and for finishing dishes. The last is when you want only the best oil.
  2. Know your terminology.
    1. In the US, olive oil labels can be misleading. Pure or light oil is actually chemically refined to extract the last possible oil from the olives. Light refers only to flavor, not calories. Oil that is labeled "extra virgin" can be as little as 10% extra virgin oil blended with light or pure!
    2. "Extra virgin olive oil" is, by definition, cold pressed and first pressed, so don't bother looking for those words on the label. They don't exist on labeling in Italy, and are only used in the US to add to the cost of the oil!
    3. For the best extra virgin olive oil, look for ones made in Italy, Spain or Greece, which say 100% extra virgin olive oil.
  3. Use different oils for different cooking methods and recipes.
    1. For heavy duty frying or sautéing, use light or pure olive oil. Extra virgin olive oil has a relatively low smoking point, so it cannot be used for those things. Some extra virgin olive oil also has bits of olive pulp in it (this is a good thing!) and those will burn easily.
    2. For salad dressings and marinades, try virgin oil. It is between extra virgin olive oil and light oil in flavor. If you want a strong olive oil flavor, use extra virgin olive oil in dressings. Be careful blending it with balsamic vinegar! Good balsamic and good extra virgin olive oil will clash. For balsamic vinaigrette, I recommend lighter oils.
    3. Try extra virgin olive oil as a finish to a dish. By that I mean drizzle a little over a hot-off-the-grill steak that has been rubbed with garlic and pepper, into a bowl of minestrone or pasta fagiole soup, into a pot as you make tomato sauce, over hot cooked broccoli or asparagus or spinach, or onto warm bread. Don't let it actually cook; just enjoy the flavor of it "raw."
    4. Extra virgin olive oil is also good for dipping bread as in most Italian restaurants these days. In a saucer, combine a clove of crushed garlic (leave it whole, just crush the clove with a knife), a few flakes each of hot pepper and rosemary and a pinch of salt. If you don't like the stronger flavor of extra virgin olive oil, you can do that with lighter oils as well.
    5. I have had Italians tell me that I am wasting my extra virgin olive oil when I use it to sauté vegetables for pasta sauce, but I do it anyway. It builds layers of flavor into a sauce like nothing else can.
  4. If you are buying olive oil for health's sake, buy only extra virgin olive oil. The chemicals and heat used to procure lighter oils remove the heart healthy components of olive oil.
  5. Pay attention to price. The best olive oil is pricey -- and worth every cent -- which is why shops that sell the best allow tasting before purchase.
  6. Check out the California Olive Oil Council for some great made-in-the-USA olive oils, all grown in California. The same soil that makes for great California wines is the soil preferred by olive trees, and the trees in California are mostly descendants of Spanish varieties planted hundreds of years ago by missionaries. That organization is working to improve labeling and quality standards for olive oil throughout the US, to ensure honesty in what we buy.

 

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