Like many people, extra virgin olive oil is a staple in my kitchen. My roommate and I use it near-daily, for everything from fried eggs to roast veggies. But, unlike many people, I am a food writer — I should be more informed about the extra virgin olive oil I so liberally drizzle on everything, and I'm probably doing it right, right?
The answer, it turns out, is wrong. Very wrong.
I found this out within a minute of speaking with Selina Wang, the research director at UC Davis Olive Center, on the do's and don't's of shopping for olive oil. As it turns out, there's a lot I've been doing wrong — and, thankfully, some pretty easy tweaks I can make.
ShoppingJust about every grocery store has an extensive olive oil selection these days. And the crème de la crème is extra virgin, or unrefined, olive oil. Regular or light olive oils are more processed, and have less flavor. So where do you start? Wang says to look for one thing: freshness. "Buy the freshest olive oil you can buy, and once you buy it, try to use it as soon as you can," says Wang. That means buying smaller bottles more frequently — and paying close attention to the harvest date.
"Sell by" dates can only tell you so much. Not only is the it fairly arbitrary, Wang explains that the oil producer could be tagging on as many as two years from the bottling date, sometimes a year after the harvest date, to come up with it. She recommends looking for a harvest date on the bottles, and finding the most recent one. No luck in finding a harvest date? Then your next best option is to find a bottle with the furthest possible expiration date.
In her research, Wang found that extra virgin olive oil doesn't actually stay extra virgin forever — it loses flavor and eventually becomes rancid. There has been a lot of coverage over the past couple years about how so-called imported extra virgin olive oils are actually adulterated with other oils. But Wang insists that fake oils isn't really the problem (and she should know — she cowrote the 2010 report that started a lot of the interest in olive oil quality). The real problem with imported olive oils failing to meet the "extra virgin" standard is age. Fresh is best, regardless of origin.
Aside from bottle or expiration date, look for dark, glass bottles that help preserve the olive oil. You also want to buy olive oil with a single country of origin. Cheaper olive oils especially may list multiple countries of origin, but Wang looks at it this way, " You wouldn’t buy your orange juice if it comes from five different countries, right? Same thing applies to olive oil." (At this point in our interview, I looked at the olive oil on my counter and... yep. Many, many countries were listed.)
You can also look for certifications. The two most strict certifiers, according to the UC Davis Olive Center, are the California Olive Oil Council and the Australian Olive Association.
StoringOnce you're home, you decant the olive oil into a cute little bottle next to your stove, right? Or, at least, that's what I usually do. Whoops. As it turns out, I'm just exposing olive oil to it's three natural enemies: light, temperature, and oxygen. Many bottles with spouts for dispensing olive oil will just let in more oxygen, helping it lose flavor even more quickly. Similarly, countertop storage, as convenient as it is, exposes the bottle to sunlight. Ideally, olive oil should be stored in a sealed, glass container, away from direct light in a cool place.
CookingAnd here is where Wang really surprised me. A common thing you'll hear about good extra virgin olive oil? Don't bother cooking with it — it's got a low smoke point and the flavor will break down. Once again, not true. Wang explained to me that good extra virgin olive oil actually has a high smoke point (around 400 degrees Fahrenheit). "If you use bad olive oil, that flavor is not going to go away from cooking," Wang says, "so you actually get nothing more by using [it]."
If you are just looking for a neutral oil to cook in and don't care about the olive oil flavor, there are other oils like canola or avocado oil with a more neutral flavor and a high smoke point.
When I hung up the call, I was initially overwhelmed at what I had just learned. But, after a trip to the grocery store, I realized it wasn't so bad. The first excursion was a little daunting, but the main pointers I focused on were looking for dark bottles, finding one with a single country of origin, and then checking out expiration dates. Buying higher quality, smaller bottles certainly means spending more money, but, when I thought about the way I was originally doing it, I was overpaying for poor quality oil. Now I'm getting more bang for my buck, and I have a much better idea of what it really means to buy a good bottle of olive oil.