Demystifying Olive Oil: Everything You Need to Know Before Buying February 5, 2020 09:38

People have been pressing olives for oil for about 5,000 years, and with good reason. The aromatic oil is remarkably diverse, both in flavor and function. Choose the right one, and you can sauté veggies, grill meats, drizzle it on salads, or even bake a cake. Plus olive oil is one of those heart-healthy fats that has stood the test of time, culture, and scientific scrutiny.

But head to your local grocery store, and you may find yourself overwhelmed. Though Americans don’t consume anywhere near as much olive oil as residents of Mediterranean countries, we have dozens of options to choose from. So how do you know which one to buy? This guide will give you the tools to select the best olive oil for your needs.

What is Olive Oil, Anyway?

Olive oil comes from the fruit of olive trees. Green, less ripe fruits produce a more potent oil. In addition to a strong, often peppery flavor, they tend to be rich in antioxidants and polyphenols. Riper olives—which are darker in color, but you wouldn’t know that from looking at the oil—yield more oil than green ones, and the flavor is milder and fruitier. Different producers will decide when to harvest based on their trees, locations, and what type of olive oil they want to make. Try a few to find what suits your palate.

Once the fruits are harvested, the oil must be extracted. Back in the day, olives were ground with stones then pressed to squeeze the oil out. Most modern producers, however, use a more involved—and better yielding—extraction process that can involve crushing, grinding, milling, mixing, and eventually separating the solids from water and oil using a centrifuge.

Differentiating Between Olive Oils

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Know the terms that olive oil manufacturers use so you can understand what you’re purchasing. Johan Wieland

Since most olive oils on the market are produced using roughly the same methods, what’s the difference between them? There are a couple of qualities to look for, including grade, organic certification, and country of origin.

Grades : The International Olive Oil Council defines standards of production, purity, and taste for the grading of olive oils. Extra virgin olive oil is considered the best of the best, and it’s the grade to use for dressing your salads and cooking your meals. Extraction must be completely mechanical—no chemicals or solvents may be used—and happen at a low temperature (below 80.6-degrees Fahrenheit). These unrefined oils have minimal defects and won’t be mixed with other oils. And although flavor can range from slightly peppery to being reminiscent of fresh grass or even citrus, extra virgin olive oils should be very low in acidity. Look for a quality stamp of approval from the North American Olive Oil Association or the California Olive Oil Council.

Virgin olive oils are held to the same production and purity standards as extra virgin, but their flavor may be milder and a bit more acidic. You may have had one of these diverse oils in a restaurant, but they’re not sold retail in North America.

Other common olive oils found in U.S. stores might be labeled “Olive Oil,” “Pure,” or “Light.” These are lower quality products that have been made through refining processes and blended with other oils. They won’t have the distinctive flavor characteristics or health benefits associated with virgin or extra virgin varieties.

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Organic olive oil is certified by the USDA. Roberta Sorge

Organic certification : In the United States, olive oils can be certified organic by the Department of Agriculture. Look for USDA organic label to make sure the fruit has been grown and product made using methods that eschew synthetic fertilizers and genetic engineering while they “foster cycling of resources, promote ecological balance, and conserve biodiversity.”

Country of origin : Not surprisingly, the vast majority of olive oil comes from the Mediterranean region where the product originated. Greece, Italy, Spain, Turkey, Morocco, and Tunisia are downright prolific, producing hundreds of thousands of tons of the stuff per year. The U.S. has been producing olive oil for more than 150 years, and production has been on the rise for the past decade, reaching 16,000 tons last year. Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Oregon, and Texas are all current olive oil-producing states. If you're wondering where your favorite olive oil was made, just flip the bottle over to find out.

Storage : Finally, it’s important to remember that olive oil doesn’t age very well, so you’ll want to purchase as close to the harvest date as possible and always consume it before the “best by” date—preferably within 4-6 months of opening. Both of these dates should be printed on the back label. Once you've purchased your as-fresh-as-possible olive oil, you can help preserve its quality by keeping the bottle away from light and heat.

In the end, it’s important to remember that olive oil is an agricultural product. Exceptional olive oils have a complexity of flavor and reflect where they are grown. You can often taste the differences between different brands of high-quality, extra virgin olive oils. Do lots of sampling and see what works for your palate. But know that when you find a good one, it’s an incredibly versatile ingredient that goes with almost anything. Like a favorite wine, quality olive oil can help make a meal extra special. Do a little bit of homework, and you’ll be rewarded on your next purchase.

Written by Stacey McKenna for Matcha in partnership with Bozzano Olive Ranch.