As children, olive oil was perhaps something we associated primarily with the cartoon character Popeye. But today, olive oil has become a staple ingredient in most of our kitchens. Much more healthful than most other oils, olive oil is high in monounsaturated fats and antioxidants, which has led to its increasing popularity in American diets.
But as a consumer, you may be overwhelmed when faced with the growing spectrum of types, brands, grades, and prices. Is there really much difference? Are the highest priced oils always the best? How do you choose the “right” kind?
Though all olive oil comes from the pressing and crushing of olives, the processes used determine the type of olive oil extracted.
1. Make sure to look for a date on the bottle. A harvest date is the best information, which tells when it’s been bottled. If you can’t find a harvest date, a “best used before” date is also helpful.
2. Buying olive oil in large quantities is not recommended. Unlike wine, olive oil does not get better with age. Rather, it deteriorates and spoils. The shelf life of most olive oils is 12-18 months, but the flavor peaks within 2-3 months after harvest. Lower grades of oil have a shorter shelf life than extra virgin varieties because of their higher acidity levels. To prolong the freshness of olive oil, make sure to seal the bottle tightly after each use, and store in a cool, dry location, never on a sunny windowsill, where it will oxidize quickly. Olive oil should not be refrigerated as condensation may occur which can spoil the flavor of the oil.
3. Don’t go by packaging. A fancy bottle sometimes contains just average oil. Look for color--the best is a nice yellow with a hint of green. This indicates the olives were picked late in the season when they were black and ripe. The best olive oils should taste smooth, with a wonderful, fruity, olive taste.
4. Purchase according to regional flavor preferences. Because the growing conditions and region affect taste, knowing where an olive oil is from can give a general idea of the flavor. Tuscan oils are usually rich and fruity with peppery tones, while oil from southern Italy tastes more delicate and mellow. Spanish oils typically have a full-bodied fruitiness with a slight bitterness. Greek oils are usually robust and assertive. Sonoma Valley oils tend to have a fresh, buttery flavor.