What to look for when Buying Olive Oil

It’s a bit intimidating, to be sure. Here you are, walking down the baking aisle of your local grocery store, when you come across the oil section. There are the familiar bottles of corn and vegetable oils. Down on the bottom shelf you should find a Crisco or two. If you’re really lucky, you may be able to locate a hunk of lard.

And then…

…and then you run into a huge section of olives oils. Some are canned, some are in green bottles. Some cost as little as five bucks, other as much as thirty. Then there are the terms on the bottles themselves. Just what the heck are you supposed to buy?

Fret not, mon amis! I am here to provide you with a rough guide of various terms and meanings which will help you decide which bottle of olive oil will fit your need.

First…Look at the label. You should see one of several terms and phrases which will help you determine the odds of getting a good bottle of oil. These terms are actually standards which a great many oil bottlers adhere to.

Extra-virgin olive oil comes from the first pressing of the olives, contains no more than 0.8% acidity, and is judged to have a superior taste. There can be no refined oil in extra-virgin olive oil. Extra-virgin oil typically has a noticeable green color. Extra-Virgin oil typically comes from the first pressing of the olives, and is usually nothing more than the juice of the olive. Not a bad thing to have around.

Virgin olive oil with an acidity less than 2%, and judged to have a good taste. There can be no refined oil in virgin olive oil. There can be oil, however, from second or even third pressings of the oil. Sometimes first pressings of lesser quality olives also get the “Virgin” label.

Olive oil is a blend of virgin oil and refined virgin oil, containing at most 1% acidity. It commonly lacks a strong flavor. This is typically the chemically refined stuff you find at lower and lowest prices in the store.

WARNING: Through the use of technology, there are some producers who can take lesser quality oil and chemcially remove acidity. By the letter of the law, they would then be “Extra Virgin” but there’s no mistaking the difference in taste between a $20 bottle of Extra Virgin and a $7 dollar.

What is cold-pressed olive oil? “Cold Pressed” is simply a technique used in pressing the oil out of the olives. Heat can break down oils, so there are several techniques used to prevent said break downs. The maximum temperature allowed in “Cold Pressed” techniques is 100 degrees F. If you see this on the label, you may not be assured of a good tasting product, but you can be assured that the producer has taste in mind when it comes to their oils. So this is a good thing to keep in the back of your head when shopping.

What Unfiltered Olive Oil? Exactly what the name implies…sediment from the pressing is not removed from the oil. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as some folks believe that the sediments add further flavor. Others think this is nonsense. If you find an unfiltered bottle, give it a try and make your own decision.

There are other variables that play into the quality of the oil. What region does it come from? Are the olives hand picked or mechanically pciked? What season were the olives harvested? What kind of olive was used in the pressing? How soon were the olives pressed after the were picked?

A lot of questions to be sure. But not a lot of answers. It is unlikely you will be able to figure out any of these answers from grocery store oils. However, the oils that come with a higher price tag may be able to answer several. But that’s why their more expensive…more resources are being applied to gather such information.

If you take anything away from this post, it is to experiment. Have more than one oil in your home in order to figure out what your preferences are. Put words to the tastes you experience. Compare them with other oils and with other people’s experience.

If you want to take away another thing from this post – it’s my recommendation for a cheap olive oil. Try Colivita. Although I experiment with other oils from time to time, I never feel bad if my only option in a store is Colivita. It’s not a complex oil, but it’s not supposed to be. This is the oil I would use for frying. I didn’t even need a free sample from Colivita in order for me to say that.

I’m not the only person who recommends it. Ari Weinzweig of Zingerman’s also mentions it in his book.

This should get you started on your olive oil hunt. Remember, there’s a difference between olive oils used for cooking, and olive oils used for taste. If your looking for cooking oil, Colivita. If your looking for taste, experiment using the advice from above. Be wary of Extra-Virgin Olive oil at $7 a bottle. Splurge on a $20 or $30 bottle if you can and compare the two. It’s through comparison that you’ll start to understand the differences in taste.

From there? Experiment, experiment, experiment.

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