Does shopping for olive oil make you feel like you’re trying to decipher hieroglyphics?
We get it! We used to buy our olive oil like we bought wine. Other than on special occasions, whatever was on sale is what got slung into our cart.
Each time we strolled down the olive oil aisle we each scratched our head thinking, “What in the world in a finishing oil anyway?” “Are three different types really necessary?” “What’s the difference between extra virgin olive oil and plain old olive oil?” Not to mention all the stories of diluted and counterfeit supermarket olive oil.
With all the terms and crazy jargon, it’s easy to see why many of us find shopping for (and using) olive oil downright confusing.
The most important ingredient in the kitchen
However, if you talk to almost any professional chef, they’ll tell you that olive oil is probably the most important thing in their kitchen. Plus, there’s got to be some validity to an ingredient that’s been a staple and cornerstone of one of the most long-standing, healthy diets around, right? (Hello, mouth-watering Mediterranean!)
What else is there to love about this “liquid gold”? For starters, a simple drizzle can elevate the most mediocre meal and make it star worthy. Did we mention it’s rich in antioxidants and monounsaturated fatty acids, and has been shown to boost heart health, elevate cognitive thinking and lower the risk of certain cancers and type 2 diabetes?
Because we believe so much in getting back to the basics and eating real foods, we wanted to simplify the buying (and using) process of one of the oldest and healthiest oils out there. Trust us, after reading this handy reference, you’ll be shopping for and cooking with extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) like a star chef in no time!
Not all olive oil is created equal – only virgins are 100% pure (no pun intended).
The key to buying a high quality oil is choosing one that was extracted from olives without chemicals being used or heat added (i.e., it wasn’t refined). Both extra virgin and virgin olive oil are derived by cold pressing the olives rather than refining them, which results in the purest, least acidic and most flavorful oil.
Less refinement = more antioxidants, nutrients and degrees of flavor. Basically, it’s healthier AND tastes better!
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
- The highest quality
- No exposure to heat or chemicals
- Oil is obtained by “cold” pressing olives
- Low smoke point (we’ll explain more later on…)
- Least acidic
Virgin Olive Oil
- No exposure to heat or chemicals
- Oil is obtained by “cold” pressing crushed olives
- Low smoke point
Because we believe in real food and less refinement (and because there’s no way to know what other oils its been cut with), we tend to steer clear of plain old olive oil.
- Heat and chemicals may be used
- Can be diluted with other oils and additives
- Label may say “classic,” “pure,” “light” (that doesn’t mean it’s 100% pure)
- Higher smoke point because it’s been refined
- Most acidic
Some other tricky lingo:
- Cold pressed versus first cold pressed. This is just a marketing tactic. All virgin olive oil is cold pressed. There’s no second pressing.
- If the bottle says “light,” chances are it’s refined (and possibly diluted). The fat and calories in all virgin olive oils are the same… so if it’s light, it may be a phony.
Delicate, medium and robust
When it comes to intensities of olive oil, there are three basic categories: delicate, medium and robust. Sounds like your favorite imported coffee, right?
While a robust EVOO works well with meals like meat and marinades, it can overpower softer flavors like a delicate fish or a light Lemon Dijon Dressing. When you’re baking (think cakes and cookies), you don’t want the flavor of a peppery olive to be the star of the show, right?
Because of this, we keep two bottles on hand:
- a delicate EVOO for baking, making simple appetizers, cooking fish and drizzling on salads
- a bolder, second bottle of EVOO for sautéing and roasting dishes.
Think about what you’re making (and how you’re using it) and then decide on which intensity works best with the flavors of that particular dish.
- making a marinade
- concocting a salad dressing
- making cold salads (bruschetta, potato salad, pasta salad, quinoa salad)
Go straight to the source and then swirl, swirl like crazy!
Looking for a fun afternoon with your girlfriends or your family? Try taproom tasting! Think winery meets olive oil. You get to taste test an array of amazing EVOOs before buying them.
Not only do tasting rooms typically carry the highest quality oils, they offer some of the best balsamic vinegars too. We’ve found these hidden gems often have the best bang for your buck. High quality and cost effective? Hallelujah! Another upside to shopping at a taproom is the retailers do their own research and can answer any questions you have before you buy.
If you’re unsure where the closest one is, do a quick Google search. Then, go on a family “field trip” and show them what high quality oil looks and tastes like. Or, invite your bestie, grab a coffee beforehand, shop together and make a morning (or afternoon) date out of it!
Some common questions you may ask at an olive oil taproom
How many oils should I try?
Just like wine, every EVOO has a completely unique flavor and aroma. This is what makes taproom tasting so much fun. You can smell, taste and choose what you love! It’s really up to you how many you want to taste, but sticking to 5-6 oils allows you to maintain balance (too many and you may end up with an upset belly, or lose the ability to taste the difference).
What in the world is the bread for?
More often than not, you’ll see little bowls of bread perfectly placed around each section of oil. When we initially went to a taproom, we thought the bread was there for dipping, kinda like tasting while enjoying a mini meal. While you can absolutely get your Italian on and dip like you’re fine dining, it’s actually there to cleanse your palate between tasting each oil. (Oops!)
What's the best way to taste the oil?
Swirl, sniff and sip! I (Kalie) will never forget the time I went to a winery in Washington and the wine connoisseur excitedly screamed, “Swirl, swirl like crazy!” What was all the swirling about? He was trying to encourage us to gently release the aromas of the wine and inhale before taking a sip. The same goes for oil. Now every time I’m at a taproom, I remember his silly words.
If you really want to take in all the goodness, give your EVOO a little swirl, inhale deeply, take a sip while inhaling (it’ll heighten the flavor) and when you swallow, think about the tastes. This is a great way to determine if the oil has the flavors you enjoy. Is it delicate or pungent? Fruity, buttery or peppery?
Can’t make it to a taproom? Look for the COOC seal of approval.
Remember how we mentioned olive oil fraud earlier? If you’re not able to shop at a taproom and still want quality oil, you can look for a trusted retailer online. If you’re headed to the supermarket, opt for EVOO that’s harvested and produced in California and has the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) seal on the bottle.
Why look for the COOC seal?
Because the COOC has standardized testing for olive oils. If their oils pass, the producers can put the COOC seal on their bottle. Studies have shown that most unregulated EVOO sold at the supermarket are below standards but still just as pricey.
Variety is the spice of life… and so are infused EVOOs.
Infused olive oils are another fun (and simple) way to amplify flavor. They range from herb-infused EVOO like rosemary and Tuscan herb, to oils infused with citrus flavors, such as blood orange. Most taprooms offer fun suggestions and unique ways to use them. Fresh, flaky white fish baked in Myer lemon infused EVOO? Yes, please!
Because EVOO has a limited shelf life, we typically buy one or two small bottles of infused oils to keep on hand. Once they’re empty, we restock with a new fabulous infused flavor!
The three enemies – light, heat and air
Each of these three foes will quickly degrade the quality of your oil. A general rule of thumb is to keep your eyes peeled for an EVOO that’s bottled in dark glass. Most companies that care about the quality of their oil won’t bottle their product in clear glass. Then, once you head home with your golden goodness, store it in a cool, dark place. Your kitchen pantry or cupboard is perfect (as long as it’s not above the oven where your oil could get hit with heat.)
Shelf life and specifics
As you probably already know, most real foods have a shelf life that’s a tad shorter (okay a lot shorter) than all those cheap, highly processed heathens. Why? Because real food wasn’t meant to last forever.
EVOO only stays fresh for about 2 years after its harvest date, so you’ll want to look for a “pressed on,” “harvest” or “best buy” date. Typically, the further out the date, the fresher the oil. So, if you see an oil sitting on the shelf from 6 years ago, keep searching! If the bottle doesn’t specify a date, we wouldn’t recommend buying it.
A lot like wine, olive oil’s quality and flavor is affected by the type of olive tree, soil, weather, processing technique and the storage of the finished product. Because of this, some labels specify the type of olive, the estate or the producer. Knowing the difference between them isn’t that big of a deal. You just want to see it labeled. The more specifics the bottle has, the better.
Use it or lose it
When we first started buying high quality EVOO, we made the mistake of hoarding the good stuff and waiting for the perfect occasion to cook with it. Unlike fine wines, olive oil doesn’t get better with age. In fact, the older it is the more it loses its health advantages (and begins to taste rancid). Because oxygen exposure reduces the quality, you’ll want to use your EVOO within 5-6 months of opening it. Don’t make the mistake of trying to save the good stuff!
Smoke points – how to get cookin’ without killin’ it!
Some oils, like coconut oil, have a high smoke point and can be heated to high temperatures without losing flavor and nutritional value. Unfortunately, virgin olive oil isn’t one of them. So you don’t burn your oil or lose the nutritional benefits (like all those amazing antioxidants), use low heat when you’re cooking with EVOO.
EVOO is best for: baking, light sautéing, cold salads, dressings, marinades and drizzling as a finish on dishes
EVOO isn’t good for: high heat cooking, frying or stir frying
Does price reflect quality?
Good olive oil isn’t always defined by its price tag. Shop around at the supermarket, online or at a local taproom and look for an oil that upholds integrity but offers the best bang for your buck.
Pro tip: To save money, sauté with less expensive EVOO. Save your flavorful, expensive ones for cold dishes and finishing meals.
Here are some favorite trusted retailers who maintain quality:
- Trader Joe’s Premium EVOO (one of the cheapest, quality EVOOs that we’ve found)
- Jovial Foods (they grow their olives on their own farms)
- Olio2go (a leading online retailer for quality Italian EVOO)
- The Fresh Pressed Olive Oil Club (a membership that offers fresh pressed artisanal oils shipped directly to you after each season’s harvest)
Keep in mind
- Virgin and Extra Virgin = less refined (and healthier)
- If possible, head to a taproom and taste test before buying. It’s the best way to find one you love.
- Look for a “pressed on,” “harvest” or “best buy” date
- Look for a dark bottle
- Store in cool, dark place
- Great in cold dishes, as a finishing oil or to cook with on low heat
- Use it within 2 years of harvest and 6 months of opening the bottle
- Even though it’s a healthy fat, it’s still a fat – moderation matters
There’s nothing like the untapped taste (and health benefits) of a high-quality virgin olive oil. Now that we know how to shop for it, we’ve vowed to never shove any old bottle into our cart again – and neither should you!
Let’s cook like seasoned Italian chefs — together!
P.S. Here are some of our favorite EVOO-friendly recipes
- Chipotle Honey Vinaigrette
- Easy Homemade Hummus (+ Ways to Flavor and Use It)
- Honey Mustard Dressing
- Lemon and Garlic Grilled Shrimp
- Fennel Salad with Seared Salmon and Baby Spinach
- Mediterranean Pasta Salad (Add Chicken for an Amazing Meal)
- Potato Salad with a Lemon Dill Vinaigrette
- Shrimp Scampi
- Creamy Chocolate Hummus (Fruit Dip + Frosting)
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