Last week, I stood in the grocery store, staring down a thousand bottles of oil. Literally. Probably.
I thought I knew what I was after: Extra virgin olive oil. But then these bottles, these hoards of bottles, confronted me with questions. Did I want something Californian, Spanish, Italian, maybe Portuguese? Did I prefer my oil to be more greenish-yellow, or yellowish-green? And did I want it in a tin, or a bottle that was clear, or green, or black? And, and, and.
At the time, my answer to most of these questions was a hesitant, “Uhhhh…?”. And so I left, empty handed, but with the question in my mind: How do you choose a good extra virgin olive oil?
(For those of you wondering, extra virgin is the highest grade of olive oil– the sort you use as a condiment rather than a cooking oil.)
After a weekend of reading, I’ve learned this: There are no guarantees; in the world of extra virgin olive oil, regulation is minimal and fraud is high. Fortunately, not all is lost. Here are a few things you can do to help boost your chances of walking away with something delicious.
Your best bet when it comes to choosing a good olive oil is to sample it before buying.
Does it smell and taste like something you want to eat (remember, it’s primarily a condiment)? There are hundreds of varieties of olives out there, so don’t expect every oil to taste grassy or peppery or be bottle green in colour. Look for a flavour that’s pleasing to you, and leave it at that.
That being said, there’s a problem: Olive oil tastings are rare in these parts. Here are some other things to look for when sampling isn’t an option.
Most countries whose names appear on olive oil labels are capable of producing great oil. The problem is that there’s no guarantee your oil really comes from that country.
See, oils that are made in a particular country may be substantially different than those that are a product of, or packed in that same country. In theory, the former category should guarantee that the olives and the oil come from the country on the label; the latter two could simply be bottled in that country, but made from olives or oil that comes from a different country altogether (imposters!). And that matters for two reasons.
First up, regulations and growing conditions differ dramatically between oil-producing countries. Second, the quality of extra virgin olive oil degrades quickly, so the longer it takes for the oil to make it into the bottle, and that bottle to reach your store, the less tasty it’s going to be.
If you can’t find the made in label (I couldn’t), opt for product of over packed in – it seems to be the less dicier of the two.
To help assure consumers of quality and give honest producers a competitive advantage, some products are stamped with labels certifying their authenticity (with regards to quality, method of production, etc.).
In the olive oil world, look for: the European Union’s red and yellow “protected designation or origin” label, the California Olive Oil Council’s yellow and green seal, or the North American Olive Oil Association’s red and green seal.
(In fairness, these types of certification aren’t without criticism.)
The quality of your extra virgin olive oil will degrade not only over time, but also when it’s exposed to heat and light. For that reason, stay away from oils in translucent glass, oils stocked in windows, etc.
As I said earlier, the quality of extra virgin olive oil degrades quickly – it’s meant to be consumed within a year or two of production.
Look for a bottle stamped with the oil’s production date – this will give you a better indication of its age than a more arbitrary expiration date.
First up, colour: You may have heard that the best extra virgin olive oils are more green than yellow. And while that may have been the case at one point, nowadays cheaper oils are being mixed with dyes to increase their greenness.
As for price: There’s no guarantee that price is indicative of quality. In the photo above, the yellowish oil on the left and the slightly greener oil in the middle cost roughly the same amount. The similarly green oil on the far right was substantially less expensive. In short: Follow the other tips first, then see if you’re left with an oil that suits your price point.
And so, you’re ready to get yourself some quality oil! Using the tips above will help you get closer to finding a real extra virgin olive oil. And there’s value in that – channelling your dollars towards producers who do things by the book will (hopefully) keep the real stuff around for longer. But at the end of the day, follow your taste buds. If your favourite oil doesn’t come in a dark bottle, or doesn’t have a certification label, don’t fret.
Want to read more about extra virgin olive oil?
Check out this article for some insight into the shady side of the extra virgin olive oil trade.
Read this post for a few brand recommendations (note that it might be a bit dated), and more information on using and storing olive oil.
Read this post for a detailed explanation of the differences between plain, virgin and extra virgin olive oil.