You have likely purchased and used Extra Virgin Olive Oil from a supermarket or perhaps a specialty food store at some point in your life or, perhaps not. For many people, one could argue most people, have little to no idea what to look for when they are buying olive oil. Supermarkets in general, have many choices of products labeled Extra Virgin Olive Oil. They typically come from olive producing countries like Spain, Italy, France, Greece, Morocco, Australia, Argentina, New Zealand and the United States to name a few. They come in multiple different containers like, metal cans, plastic bottles or jugs, glass bottles, round, rectangular, short, tall and thin, clear or green glass bottles. They have different labels on the front or are painted on the glass or can, and usually a label on the back. Some have date of harvest, use by, or best before. Also, there are different certifications like IOC, COOC or NAOOA to name a few. Often, Oils labeled Extra Virgin, are next to other kinds of vegetable and nut oils. Even just plain Olive Oil. Unless you are in a specialty gourmet food shop that has knowledgeable staff versed on the virtues of Extra Virgin Olive Oil, you are on your own! Which do you buy? Here are some tips and advice to help guide your decision and cut through the clutter.
Please keep in mind, the USDA nor the FDA require labeling laws that determine whether an oil can be labeled as Extra Virgin. While there are standards for Olive Oil, they are only recommendations and never enforced. Really. It has been a source of frustration and controversy for many years especially among California Olive Oil Producers and the COOC. As a result, there has been rampant fraud discovered years ago as determined by tests conducted both sensory and chemical analysis by the UC Davis Olive Center and other laboratories. These random studies sampling oils labeled as Extra Virgin Olive Oil from supermarket shelves discovered during two separate studies, 69% showed noticeable defects and 74% of the oils sampled and tested contained noticeable defects. If an oil is deemed defective during testing, it cannot be labeled as Extra Virgin, by definition established by the IOOC. Terms like Organic, Cold Pressed or First Pressed, are pretty useless when it comes to determining quality of oil. Example, all Extra Virgin Olive Oils are cold pressed. Usually around or below 75 degrees F. Those terms are little more than marketing buzzwords. Buyers BEWARE!!! Which is the point of this post, I hope you will benefit from.
When deciding on buying Extra Virgin Olive Oil, read the labels. Look for a Harvest Date, and a COOC, IOOC or North American Olive Association certified seal as starting points. However, not all will have either, as certifications require testing and fees for the service. However, I believe that Harvest Dates and some certifications like the COOC seal are top quality indicators. Olive harvests usually begin in October and run into or through January in the new year. Weather effects the length and quality of any particular years harvest.
When I am asked, what should I look for or know when buying Extra Virgin Olive Oil? I usually reply with, "What do you intend to use it for?" It is important to know this as there are many different flavor characteristics in Extra Virgin Olive Oil that range from green or grassy like tomato leaf or tea leaf, often found in early harvest oils, are from olives that are under ripe. In contrast, olive oils made from fully ripe olives, tend towards fruity, buttery and nutty like, citrus or avocado often found in oils. Both are good! Flavor characteristics of a particular oil can really effect the overall flavor of the dish or food consumed with it. Price can vary tremendously due to yield and production or even seasonally adjusted during difficult years effected by drought or rain conditions. Very similar to factors that effect the Wine industry. Unlike wine, Extra Virgin Olive Oils are best consumed within two years of harvest as quality and flavor declines begin not long after harvest and packaging for sale. In other words, quality suffers with age.
Ok, back to What is your intended use? I simplify the complexities surrounding flavor characteristics of Extra Virgin Olive Oil as Green or Ripe. From there, I think of what dish or foods I want to use it in and how. Will it be used in a salad, soup, baked good, sauce or condiment, pasta, a drizzle as a garnish? Do I intend to use the oil as a cooking oil? Each ingredient in a particular preparation or dish, has a purpose. Your extra virgin olive oil is an ingredient and should be used with intention. Especially as the price can get really expensive. Is the oil better because it is more expensive? Not necessarily. Is there good extra virgin olive oil at a lower price than the expensive ones? Yes, if you know what to look for and what your intended use will be. I do not make purchase decisions for Olive Oil based on price alone nor should you.
Now that we have established your intended use and other possibilities, which oil should you pick? If your use is to cook with, perhaps to sauté sea scallops, or coat a piece of chicken or fish prior to cooking, I usually use a less expensive buttery or ripe oil. In some cases with baking, the same would be used as a butter (fat) substitute. Extra Virgin Olive Oil replacing butter has health benefits due to its chemical composition. There has been a lot of research and papers written on the subject and is considered a hallmark of the Mediterranean Diet. In the case of a vinaigrette, sauce or condiment like pesto, either type of oil could be appropriate. Early harvest olives that are green and represent the "First" pressing of the season, are celebrated in many countries as "New Oil" or "Olio Nuovo". This oil can be very pungent or astringent as well as full of green flavor characteristics that often make a person cough once or twice as it hits the back of the throat when eaten. It is so delicious when drizzled generously over fresh baked bread straight from the oven or grilled and rubbed with a clove of garlic and a sprinkle of course sea salt! It makes a nice finishing touch on grilled seafood or meats, vegetables, risotto, soup and pasta too.
Price per ounce, is often a good metric for determining the cost of and comparing one oil to another. Especially since they come in all shapes and sizes. A small 375 ml-12 2/3oz. bottle could pack a steep price per ounce!
- Determine the intended use for the oil. Is it all purpose or specific to a certain dish or preparation.
- Check labels and look for Date of Harvest or Best Before. I don't recommend buying if over a year past harvest unless you intend to use immediately. It has been stored for at least a year already.
- Look for Certification from IOOC or COOC. This indicates oil has gone through rigorous evaluation and certification process.
- Look for dark green bottles. Studies indicate that UV light, heat and other sources compromise the quality of olive oil. Even while sitting on a store shelf!
- Fresher is better! Olive oil does not improve with age. Quality begins to noticeably diminish after one year of harvest, it's not necessarily bad, just not as many of the same quality attributes as when it was younger. Rancidity is one potential issue due to age and improper storage.
- Price alone is not an indicator of overall quality.
- Extra Virgin Olive Oil has many known health benefits as evident in the Mediterranean Diet.
- There is currently no regulations in place or labeling laws when it comes to oils labeled as Extra Virgin.
- Extra Virgin is determined after rigorous sensory (taste) evaluation and laboratory chemical analysis is conducted and the oil is determined to have ZERO defects.
- IOC=International Olive Council
- COOC=California Olive Oil Council
- NAOOA=North American Olive Oil Association
- Harvest Date=Date of when oil was harvested.
- Bottle Date=Date of when oil was bottled.
- Best Before Date=Suggested use by.
Michael Tuohy, served on the first International Olive Council Certified Taste Panel in North America, at the UC Davis Olive Center for two years. The panel was created in 2010. Lead by Dr. Jean-Xavier Guinard, a leading Professor in Sensory Scientist, at The UC Davis Olive Oil Taste Panel, was made up of eight to twelve tasters who have been trained for more than two years to evaluate olive oil for positive and negative sensory attributes. Panelists meet up to four times a month and evaluate between six and ten samples a session. Oils are assessed based on the intensity of their smell, taste, and mouthfeel, and not by preference. The UC Davis Olive Oil Panel, evaluates oil samples based on the International Olive Oil Council scorecard, as well as on more than 30 additional attributes developed by the panel. Samples are evaluated in sets of four to five oils and panelists are given fifteen minute breaks between sets. Panelists cleanse their palates between samples with room temperature water and granny smith apples. They are also separated by dividers and are not permitted to talk during the sessions. If the panel finds the median scores of all defects to be zero and a median fruitiness score above zero, the oil is graded as extra-virgin. He is also a past Board Member of the California Olive Oil Council (COOC).
The COOC is a trade association with the mission of encouraging the consumption of certified California extra virgin olive oil through education, outreach and communications. The COOC is committed to upholding the highest standards within the olive oil industry through its Seal Certification Program.