Unsure how to choose and use olive oil? Start with this complete guide.
There’s no straightforward answer to the question ‘what is the best oil?’. Hundreds of olive varieties go into making different oils, so your choice should depend on what you’ll use it for.
This guide covers everything you need to know about buying good oil, how to store it and how to use it.
What should good olive oil taste like?
Good olive oil should have a vague bitterness and pungency to it that doesn’t overwhelm. There should be a hint of the fruitiness of fresh olives, and a slight pepperiness. Together, these elements should create a balance of flavours with complex aromas and aftertastes.
Buy fresh, lively oils with a crisp, clean mouthfeel, and avoid ones that taste smooth, sweet, tired or limp.
What’s the difference between olive oils?
Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO): virgin oils are produced mechanically without the use of chemicals. Extra virgin is the highest grade available and the least processed so it’s of superior quality and boasts the most health benefits.
Virgin olive oil: this is of slightly lower quality. It may have a sensory defect; for instance, it may smell vinegary or taste mushroomy.
Pure or refined olive oil: often labelled simply as olive oil, this is virgin oil that has gone through a refining process with charcoal or other chemicals (though not solvents). It may be blended with virgin oil to enhance the taste.
Olive pomace oil: this oil is extracted using solvents from the olive pulp left after crushing. It has a blander, more neutral taste but a high smoke point, which makes it popular for deep-frying.
Note that 'light’ and ‘extra light’ refer to the strength of taste, not the calorie content.
How to choose the right oil for the job
Oils described as robust, full-bodied or ‘early harvest’ should be used in strong-flavoured dishes, or ones where they will be able to shine; for instance, tomato bruschetta or mozzarella salad.
Mellow oils labelled mild, delicate or ‘late harvest’ are more suited to frying and lighter dishes such as fish or chicken, or ones where a less flavourful oil will suffice.
Generally speaking, extra virgin is most suitable for salads, cold dishes and sautéing; and milder oils are for frying and roasting. However, many connoisseurs would advise you use only extra virgin oil, as it’s so superior.
The truth about cold pressed and first pressed oils
You may be seduced by the terms cold pressed and first pressed, but how important are they?
The answer is not very. Firstly, cold pressed and cold extraction refers to oils that aren’t heated over 27°C/80°F during processing, thus retaining more of their nutrients. In Europe cold pressed oil is made by pressing olives the traditional way, while cold extraction is oil obtained using a centrifuge.
In truth, barely any olives are made by the traditional pressing method these days; most are mechanically extracted. In cold weather, the olives may be crushed at a higher temperature without being heated, so there’s no universally recognised meaning for cold pressed.
First pressed oil is produced by crushing the olives only once. However, virgin oils are pressed once anyway – there is no second press – so this claim is meaningless. None of these terms are officially regulated.
What to look for on the label
Harvest date and best before dates: olive oil doesn’t improve with age – it should be as fresh as possible. It certainly shouldn’t be older than two years as its flavours and aromas will have deteriorated. Bear in mind that many oils are stored for years before being bottled, while cheap supermarket varieties can contain a blend of oils from years ago combined with fresh oils from more recent harvests.
Origin: when the packaging claims oil is a ‘product of’ a particular country this only indicates where it was packed and shipped, not necessarily that it was made from olives grown in that country. To find the actual country of origin, look for the name and location of the estate. Don’t be distracted by romantic pictures of the Italian countryside or Italian flags – many so-called Italian oils come from Spain, Greece, Morocco or Tunisia.
Estate: look for the estate name on the label. ‘Single estate’ or ‘estate nurtured’ shows it’s likely to have been made by a small producer with complete control over growing and pressing. Iris Efthimiadou, of Greek olive oil company Eliris, explains: “good olive oil starts with clean, healthy olives [and] the attention given to all stages from cultivation and pruning to harvest, transportation of olives, timing, milling and storing – the more attention to detail, the better the quality".
Olive variety: like grapes for wine, a good bottle should list the varieties of olives used, as different ones produce vastly different tasting oils. It’s worth knowing that the same brand of oil may taste dissimilar from one year to next as olive quality fluctuates.
Certification: although certification isn’t a guarantee of quality, it ensures that the oil is properly made. Look for PDO (European Union’s Protected Designation of Origin), its Italian equivalent DOP, PGI and IGP. These certificates ensure that the product comes from a designated region specifically renowned for its olive oils. Good oils may also be certified by national or international bodies such as the International Olive Council (IOC). In the UK, look for award-winners from the Great Taste Awards and the London International Olive Oil Competitions.
Mechanical vs. chemical: although it sounds industrial, good oils sold within the EU should state: “Superior category olive oil obtained directly from olives and solely by mechanical means.” This simply means that the oil has not been treated by heat or chemicals.
Flavoured oils: look for the term ‘agrumato’, which ensures that the oil is made by crushing whole flavouring ingredients (such as lemon or chilli), rather than artificial flavourings.
Filtered or unfiltered oil?
You might think rustic-looking unfiltered oil with minuscule amounts of pulp and skin is tastier and more authentic. While over-filtration or incorrect filtration can affect flavours and aromas, most experts agree that filtration is a good thing as it extends shelf life. Sediment spoils faster than the oil itself, making it rancid, so avoid buying such bottles unless you’re going to use the oil immediately.
Is organic better?
Generally, yes, though bear in mind that many small producers can’t afford to apply for certification, so this should not be your main concern.
Does colour matter?
No. Contrary to popular belief, greener oil does not mean better oil. The colour depends on the variety of olives used, at what stage after harvesting they were crushed and other factors.
How should olive oil be stored?
While the oil’s colour doesn’t matter, the bottle’s colour certainly does. Olive oil expert and group head chef of Spaghetti House, Achille Travaglini, explains: “It’s best to buy oil in dark glass bottles to prevent oxidisation, and store it in a cool, dark space away from direct sunlight and heat. Oils in tin containers are fine, as long as they’re stainless steel. Buy in small quantities and use up quickly.”
Chilling oil is fine – it produces harmless sediment – as is freezing. Freezing helps preserve oil but reduces its shelf life.
Where can you buy good olive oil?
Purchasing directly from a producer isn't an option for must of us, so the second best option is speciality olive oil retailers. Unless they’re online, you’ll have a chance to taste a wide range. Consumer food and lifestyle shows are excellent places to visit as producers offer samples to try. Travaglini also suggests trying your local deli or supermarkets’ finest choice ranges.
Five delicious olive oil recipes to try:
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