Olive Oil Buyer's Guide
Everything you need to know to choose the healthiest, tastiest oil and find delicious recipes using olive oil.
With dozens of bottles of olive oil to choose from at the grocery store, it's easy to blindly pick one up not knowing if it's a good quality olive oil. But when it carries a hefty price tag, you want to get the best olive oil for your money and your needs. We put together this simple guide on how to buy olive oil so you can shop a little more confidently.
What the Labels Mean
Labels on olive oil bottles can be confusing. Some of the terminologies don't quite translate into everyday language. We broke down some of the words you may come across so you know what you're buying.
Extra-virgin vs Virgin Olive Oils Oils labeled "extra-virgin" and "virgin" are processed by crushing olives into a mash, which is pressed to extract the oil (this is called the first press) without the use of heat (called cold pressing). Extra-virgin oils are of higher quality, as the olives used to make them are processed within 24 hours of picking–the longer olives go between picking and processing, the higher their free fatty acid content (extra-virgin olive oil can have up to 0.8 percent, virgin oils 2 percent). Extra-virgin oils also have more polyphenols than virgin oils.
Pictured Recipe: Olive Oil Tea Cake
Filtered vs Unfiltered Oils can be filtered or not. Unfiltered oils have tiny particles of olive flesh in them, which reduces shelf life, and may appear cloudy if those particles haven't settled at the bottom of the bottle.
Pure Olive Oil Pure olive oil or simply olive oil are below extra-virgin and virgin standards and are heavily processed to remove off flavors and aromas. Though the oil is still a source of monounsaturated fat, it's been stripped of healthful polyphenols.
"Light" Olive Oil "Light," "lite" and "extra-light" are purely marketing terms used on highly refined oils that refer to mild flavor and/or color, not reduced calorie content.
"Product of Italy" "Product of Italy" means the oil was processed in Italy, not necessarily that the olives were grown there.
Regional Designations You can find oils based on their country of origin–oils that use solely Italian olives or olives from Greece or California. Often made from olives from single estates or particular growing regions, these high-quality artisan oils have more distinct flavors–and are more expensive. When seeking out these oils, look for seals and designations as helpful indications of quality.
Denominazione d'Origine Protetta (DOP) in Italy, Appellation d'Origine Contrôlée (AOC) in France and Denomination of Origin (DOP) throughout the European Union (EU) identify products produced, processed and prepared in regions known for expertise in that particular product. For North American olive oil, the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) and the International Olive Council (IOC) certify and give their mark to quality extra-virgin olives oils, from California and the EU respectively, based on taste and quality.
Olive Oil Shopping Tips
Beyond the labels, there are a few other things to consider when you're looking for the best olive oil for what you're cooking.
Light Exposure Light exposure causes the oil to become rancid and lose its healthful properties-buy extra-virgin olive oil in dark glass bottles and metal cans and store it in a cool, dark place.
Bottling and Expiration Dates Bottling and/or expiration dates provide guidance on how long the oil will keep.
Size of the Bottle If you don't use extra-virgin olive oil regularly, buy small bottles–polyphenols and flavor can diminish as the oil is exposed to air.
Color The color of the oil doesn't indicate its quality-rather the variety and ripeness of olives used to make it.
Pictured Recipe: Olive Oil-Braised Summer Squash
What We Like at EatingWell
In the EatingWell Test Kitchen, we like to use extra-virgin olive oil for both its healthful properties (we often use it to replace butter or other fats) and its flavor. Consider keeping two types on hand: a less expensive variety for cooking and an artisanal oil for dipping. We held a blind tasting of 10 different oils. Four of the six tasters preferred Spectrum Organic Extra-Virgin Olive Oil for its fruity flavor and well-balanced finish. We also tried a variety of artisanal oils. Comments on the flavors and aromas of the artisanal oils ran the gamut from "grassy, green and bitter" to "buttery with a green-apple finish." There were two that we liked best. L'Estornell Organic Spanish Extra Virgin Olive Oil is a well-balanced oil made from Arbequina olives, the variety used to make most oils from California and Northeast Spain. A lovely single-estate oil from Tuscany, Altomena Extra-Virgin Olive Oil is grassy and peppery with loads of olive flavor.
The Smoke Point Controversy
You might have heard that you can't cook with extra-virgin olive oil because it breaks down when heated, creating harmful substances and destroying its beneficial properties. But all oils break down when they are heated to their smoke point or reheated repeatedly. However, an oil's smoke point is really a temperature range (olive oil's is between 365-420°F), not an absolute number because many factors affect the chemical properties of oil. You can safely and healthfully cook with any oil by not heating it until it's smoking-to get your oil hot enough to cook with, just heat it until it shimmers.
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