The Ultimate Guide to Picking the Right Olive Oil: The Dos and Don’ts of Choosing Olive Oil
With so many options available, choosing an olive oil for your kitchen can be an overwhelming decision! What’s the right color? Does acidity matter? How much should I spend for a good olive oil? And what the heck even is extra virgin? In this guide, we’ll help you navigate the olive oil aisle, cut through the marketing lingo, and figure out how to choose the perfect olive oil for your needs and taste.
Want to see our tips in action? Check out this video where we taste tested a BUNCH of widely available olive oil brands to find our favorites:
What is Olive Oil?
It’s important to start with the basics. Olive oil is simply the juice of olives—it just happens to be magically fatty and delicious! All olive oil is made by collecting olives and extracting the juice, although these two processes can be done in several different ways. For instance, sometimes olives are left to fall naturally off the tree, while in other cases they’re shaken off intentionally. Luckily, you don’t have to worry too much about these details, provided you pay attention to the key points below.
What is Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Do I Need It?
The term “extra virgin” simply denotes a grade of acidity. In order to be considered extra virgin, the oil must test below 0.8% acidity (more on acidity later).
The alternatives to extra virgin olive oil are “virgin olive oil” and “olive oil” (which we’ll refer to as “refined” from now on). Luckily, choosing between these three is really simple: always pick extra virgin. Virgin and refined are simply not fit to cook with. They are of a very poor quality, taste bad, and do not share the health benefits of extra virgin.
What About the Other Lingo? First Cold Pressed? Unfiltered?
“First pressed” simply means that the oil was the very first to be pressed out of a batch of olives. The inherent quality of this type makes sense once you understand that olives are pressed multiple times in order to extract as much oil as possible—somewhat obviously the last dregs aren’t quite as good as the first pressed oil. Often you’ll see “cold” advertised as well, which just means that the olives were pressed in a climate controlled environment which helps to produce a better oil.
In short, “first cold pressed” olive oil is theoretically of a higher quality. That being said, just because a bottle says this doesn’t mean the oil is necessarily better than another because ALL extra virgin olive oils, by definition, have to be first pressed and almost all are cold pressed anyway.
Unfiltered olive oil has a slightly cloudy appearance. It’s not better or worse than filtered olive oil, it simply has a different aesthetic.
Olive Oil Acidity
Acidity is a very important factor when choosing olive oil, but not for the reason you might think. It’s very unlikely that you will notice a more or less acidic taste between oils that are, say, 0.2% and 0.5% acidic. The only real way to know the acidity is through scientific testing. So if you can’t taste the acidity, who cares?
Acidity is an indicator of overall quality. For instance, if olives are left too long on the ground before harvesting, the resulting oil will have a higher measurable acidity. The oil will likely taste a little off, just not in a way you might identify as “acidic,” but the measurement can inform you prior to purchasing that there may be a problem.
If you find a bottle of olive oil that advertises the acidity, take note! Many brands do not print this number on the bottle, but keep an eye out for lower levels if you can.
Olive Oil Origin
It’s important to pay close attention to where an olive oil comes from, but not because any one country makes better olive oil than another. Usually, olive oil is produced in countries where it is possible to find a great product. While Italy makes amazing olive oil, so do Tunisia and Spain!
In general, a blend won’t be as high quality as a single origin oil. All other things being equal, an oil that comes solely from Greece will probably be yummier than one which comes from Spain, Tunisia, AND Greece. Not that there’s anything wrong with a blend, many are great!
Don’t be fooled by misleading marketing. “Imported from Italy” or “Product of Italy” in no way means that the olives come from Italy, for instance. The oil might be from Spain and simply bottled in Italy. Carefully read the label if you want to get at the truth.
Many olive oil producers use a coded system on their bottles, with initials designating the origin(s) of the oil. For instance, IT = Italy, ES = Spain, TN = Tunisia, GR = Greece, etc. It’s very easy to find a “Product of Italy” bottle which reads, in tiny letters on the back, “TN ES GR” and therefore doesn’t have a drop of Italian oil in it.
One of the most important reasons to pay attention to the origin is to avoid overpaying for your olive oil. A single source Italian oil is, naturally, going to be more expensive than a Mediterranean blend. But are you sure that it’s really Italian olive oil? It might taste great, but you also might be paying far too much and missing out on a better blended deal!
Many brands don’t include this information on their bottles, but pay attention if you see it! While olive oil doesn’t really expire, it tastes best within 18 months of harvest so keep an eye out for recent dates.
What Color Should Olive Oil Be?
Green or yellow, but never brown. A green olive oil means that the olives were intentionally harvested earlier, before they achieve full ripeness, while yellow indicates oil from mature olives. One isn’t inherently better than the other. If you find olive oil that’s a very dark yellow, bordering on brown, stay away! That’s a very bad indicator of either poor quality olives or oil that is extremely old.
There’s one other reason an olive oil can be green, though, and it’s because it might be a…
Olio Nuovo, Olio Novello, or New Olive Oil
These terms all mean the same thing: an oil that was very recently pressed. When olive oil is first extracted, it has a bright green color and an unusually spicy and intense taste. After being bottled, this color and intensity naturally mellows and fades to “normal.”
It’s pretty rare to encounter Olio Nuovo, but if you can ever find the real thing it’s amazing!
Cooking Olive Oil vs. Tasting Olive Oil
It would be wonderful if we could all afford to use the best quality olive oil for all of our cooking needs: from frying to drizzling on a finished dish. The reality is that not everyone has the budget for that, which is why many people have a “cooking” olive oil for general purposes and a nicer “tasting” olive oil for sampling and tasting in a more direct way (such as on a bruschetta).
If you take this approach, be sure to pay attention to the all of the quality indicators for both. Absolutely avoid any olive oil that says “for cooking” (this means it is definitely refined) and stick with extra virgin in all cases.
We understand wanting to get the most bang for your buck, but in general our advice is to use less of the good stuff than more of the mediocre stuff. Your body and taste buds will thank you!
Fake Olive Oil
There is, unfortunately, plenty of fake olive oil on the market. Sometimes virgin or refined olive oils are sold as extra virgin, sometimes companies use misleading marketing to trick consumers about an oil’s origin, and sometimes they even dress up other kinds of oil with flavorings and colors to pass it off as olive oil—it doesn’t even come from olives!
The bad news is that there’s no way to be 100% sure if what a bottle says is real. Trickery does happen, scandals do come out regarding major producers. The good news, however, is that if you pay attention to the points listed in this article, the chance of you being bamboozled will drop significantly!
The Bottom Line
The guidelines above will help you make some choices in the olive oil aisle, but ultimately the most important thing is that you enjoy the taste of the olive oil you use. Life is too short to cook with oil you don’t like! Some people like a spicier oil, some prefer a more mild taste. If you don’t like what you have, try another one next time.
As always, buon appetito!