Olive oil: It's one of those basic ingredients most of us have in our homes and use near-daily, but what do we really know about it? In front of the dizzying number of olive oils available at your local market, how do you choose which to buy? Does color really matter? How about terms like “cold-pressed” and “first-pressed”? Among the many olive oil producing regions of the world, do experts agree upon one that's best?
We spoke with three olive oil experts, who share their insider knowledge and offer tips about how to select, buy, use, and store high-quality olive oils.
Is it true that green color is an indicator of quality in olive oil?
In a word: no. “Color is not considered a determining factor to define the quality of the olive oil,” says Gabriela Moglia, an agronomist, the general manager of ChileOliva and an official taster for the Panel de Cata de Chile, In fact, when professional tasters such as Moglia are tasting olive oils, they use dark blue glasses so color does not influence their opinions.
The color of an olive oil is the result of a variety of factors, including the type of olive, the stage of harvest, and the time and temperature involved in the churning of the olives. Rather than color, says David Neuman, CEO, Gaea North America, LLC, look to other characteristics. Aroma, taste, and mouth feel will give you a “much more precise indicator of quality,” Neuman says.
Should we be concerned with descriptors like “extra-virgin,” “cold-pressed,” and first-pressed”?
Yes, no, and no. Nancy Harmon Jenkins, author of Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil, recommends that consumers concerned with oil quality and their own health buy only extra-virgin olive oil. “There is no point buying anything other than extra-virgin olive oil,” she says, as other olive oils are “refined with chemicals to remove unsavory flavors and aromas.”
As for “cold-pressed” and “first-pressed,” these are terms that are virtually meaningless. Harmon Jenkins explains that “if an oil fits the extra-virgin category, which legally it should only after passing a series of fairly rigid tests, it must be produced from the first pressing and there is no other pressing at all.”
There are so many olive oil producing regions in the world. Is there one that's the best?
The answer to this question, says Harmon Jenkins, is entirely a matter of personal taste. For her, central Italian olive oils set the standard, but she acknowledges that for some palates, these oils may be “too robust, too peasant-y.” For those who want a milder flavored extra-virgin olive oil, she recommends those from California, Chile, and Catalonia.
Moglia may be biased, but she acknowledges that “all oil-producing countries have companies that produce high quality extra virgin olive oil.” In Chile, however, “virtually all production, more than 90%, is extra virgin,” she says. Moglia explains that Chilean olive oils are produced under strictly-enforced systems that involve harvesting and processing olives within 24 hours or less. “The whole process is organized in the same field,” she explains, “from harvesting and oil extraction to bottling, reaching consumers as fresh, high quality, and truly virgin oils.”
How should we store olive oil?
In a cool, dark space, kept away from the stove and other heat sources. And use it fairly quickly. Harmon Jenkins says that after about six months you'll notice a very distinctive difference from fresh oil (though you can still use it for cooking oil); Neuman is a bit more generous in his estimate, advising to use within a year (though, he says, once opened, it should be used within a month). He recommends buying 17-ounce bottles rather than larger containers.
What should we know about using it?
Above all, “be fearless” advises Harmon Jenkins. Olive oil is an incredibly versatile oil that can be used in the cooking pot and on the table. Much of the common knowledge about olive oil simply isn't true. For example, olive oil doesn't catch fire at 320 degrees, says Harmon Jenkins; “it's stable up to 420.” Moglia points out that the idea that olive oil can't be used for frying is a myth. “According to studies,” she says, “olive oil withstands higher temperatures than sunflower oil and thus the food absorbs much less fat during frying.”
Harmon Jenkins also urges consumers to travel to the source if they ever have the chance to do so. “The taste of fresh oil is indescribably wonderful,” she says, “and will set a flavor profile in your mouth that you will never forget.”
What do olive oil experts know that we don't... but should?
First, read labels carefully! It's common for misleading labels to obscure the fact that mixtures with seed oils are being sold as olive oils. Next, take a look at the bottle (never buy a dusty one) and check the best before date. Neuman also advises buying olive oil in a dark glass bottle rather than large tins, and if you see sediment in the bottle leave it on the shelf. Finally, while low prices can be tempting, remember that cheap olive oils are usually bad olive oils.
Finally, both Neuman and Harmon Jenkins says shoppers shouldn't be shy about returning olive oils that don't pass muster. “Does it smell fresh?” Neuman asks. “Like freshly cut grass? Or vegetal like artichoke or tomato leaf? Taste it. If the taste and smell are unpleasant and the mouth feel is thick and viscous, do not use it. Take it back to the store and ask for a refund,” he says.