How to choose good olive oil?
Updated: Oct 1, 2020
I recently received an email from one of you telling me that she had run out of our Olivoglio extra virgin olive oil and asking me which olive oil I would recommend she buy in her local supermarket. Tough question and sure enough got me thinking. I realized that the least I can do is to give some guidelines for when you’re not able to pick up a prime quality directly in a producing region.
Firstly, I have to admit that I’m a terrible olive oil snob. When out and about I study the label & sniff the content before I drizzle it over my bread, salad, pasta...there is no limit to where your olive oil goes when you're in Italy! When we leave on a family holiday, I'll panic at the thought of not having a good oil, so I'll bring a bottle of our own. Better safe than sorry! And frankly, in doing so I can avoid facing the shelves of olive oils in a supermarket anywhere.
But let me dig a little deeper and I'll try to paint an unbiased picture for you. There are basically two very different kinds of extra virgin olive oils out there. You have to train yourself to distinguish them because both are labelled "extra virgin olive oil". And just a reminder of what exactly that means…olives are mechanically processed (instead of chemically) spinning the oil out of them, the olives should be fresh when milling so the acidity level can be lower than 0.8% (which is kind of high), and hence the taste must be fruity and can’t be faulty.
As to different kinds of EVOO I’m referring on one side to the ones that are made by the big INDUSTRY that purchases batches of oil from all over and blends it together to make a brand. Typically this stuff is distributed in supermarkets worldwide. The oils are usually bland in taste, not very fresh and often quite close to the limit of actually being an extra virgin. On the other side, there are the DISTINCTIVE small producers that typically have their own groves they tend to. Often they commercialize their own products in speciality stores more locally because their quantities tend to be limited. These oils are usually much higher in quality (in taste & health benefits, too) compared to the ones of the big industry and vary in taste according to their area of production & olive varietals (there are hundreds of different cultivars).
The problem is that it’s not always easy to figure out which is the DISTINCTIVE kind, especially in a big supermarket chain that no doubt has way more INDUSTRIAL oils. Say you have the choice - how do you even recognize the good stuff?!
Things you need to look out for: - Protection of the origin (PDO or PGI) where an entity controls and certifies the origin of the oil. This is only for European oils, but since most olive oils are made around the Mediterranean and the countries that bottle the oils are usually European, you should definitely be on the lookout for it. - Look for a year of production or vintage. Great producers will be proud to tell their consumers what year the oil was made, just like with wine. It's not a mandatory requirement, unfortunately. In fact, the required yet ambiguous "best before" date refers to the time from bottling (18 months) and not from the production date. It's practically impossible to know how old the oil in an industrial bottle is. Why should you care? Well, olive oil does not last forever. The number of antioxidants will drop, the fresh flavour will slowly fade, and eventually, it will turn rancid. Nothing’s worse than pouring rancid oil on good food! - Look for an organic certified oil. Organic doesn’t necessarily mean the oil will taste better than a conventional one, but the small producers are often the ones that will be able to keep organic farming practices and it simply means you probably have run into a distinctive olive oil. - TRUST YOUR TASTE! Great olive oil tastes deliciously fresh, sometimes grassy and peppery like our Tuscan one, for example. - Other tips: purchase your oil in small quantities (half-litre or litre) so you avoid to oxidize it whilst using it. Better oils usually come in dark bottles or tins, so try to avoid placing them in a sunny place as that speeds up the ageing process. Cool storage spaces are better, so no need to put your oil in the fridge but certainly don’t store it in a hot place.
I hope this little rant about EVOO was informative to you. In case you missed it, you can watch our video about our 2019 olive oil in the making this past October. And we still have a few bottles left, if you’re interested in shipping some great Tuscan olive oil to yourself or someone you know (EU & North America only): https://www.tuscanyinabottle.com/olive-oil)