In a prior Cooking Tip, I discussed culinary oils in general. In this one, I want to focus on one type in particular – Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
This is one of the most expensive type of culinary oils you will buy and we all like to make sure we get the best for our money. I have done some research on how to pick out a great olive oil and following are what the experts tell us.
Here are certain things to look for.
The harvest date – The “Best By” date may be up to 2 years after pressing of the olives. The “Harvest” date is a much better indicator of freshness. Try to pick one with the most recent date, remembering that olives are usually harvested in the fall and winter, meaning the harvest date for what is on the shelf will be the year before.
The container – Look for oil that is in a dark container. Light can degrade the oil. Pick an oil where the container protects the oil from the light.
Country/Region of origin – Look for where the oil was sourced. Higher quality olive oils will be sourced from one country. Note that wording like “Product of Italy” might only mean that it was shipped from Italy, not necessarily that the olives were grown and harvested in Italy.
Less pricey & mass market olive oils are often a result of buying cheap bulk oils from all over the world and blending them. This means less quality control over the handling of the oil but it also means these oils lack the distinct flavor that you expect from a good olive oil.
The Cultivars – Look for the specific olives that have been harvested. Absence of the area of origin and the cultivars may (though not always) indicate lower quality oil.
If at all possible, taste the oil before purchasing it. This generally means going to a gourmet food store or a shop that specializes in oil. The typical supermarket is not going to offer tastings outside of the rare special event.
The reason that we must be savvy olive oil shoppers is that some deficits in the industry have been documented. In a 2016 article from the Denver Post, the writer noted that about 75% of the extra virgin olive oil sold in the US is often diluted with lower quality olive oil. The article goes on to note that a 2010 University of California study found that 69% of imported oils sold in California stores at that time failed to meet international standards for olive oil.
Not only will the authentic, high-quality extra virgin olive oil give you tremendous flavor and more variety of that flavor but the fresher, more pungent-tasting oil is higher in antioxidant-rich polyphenols.
To be fair, since these exposes, the industry has attempted to improve quality standards. In 2010, the USDA issued the “United States Standards for Grades of Olive Oil and Olive-Pomace Oil.” However, these standards are voluntary. Producers may choose to seek certification by the USDA as “US Extra Virgin Olive Oil” if they wish, but it is not mandatory.
Some states have gone further, including California. They have adopted standards recommended by the Olive Oil Commission of California. According to this website, “California olive oil handlers who produce 5,000 gallons or more are required by law to participate in the OOCC’s mandatory government sampling and testing program. Producers with less than 5,000 gallons may voluntarily participate in the OOCC’s government sampling program.”
The California Olive Oil Council (a different entity) has a mission to uphold “the highest standards within the olive oil industry through its Seal Certification Program”. The members of COOC must submit their oils for testing and evaluation to ensure they meet the qualifications to be labeled Extra Virgin Olive Oil. Therefore, if you buy an oil with the COOC seal, you can be assured that you are getting the real thing.
What do you do on a daily basis, though, in your kitchen? Authentic, high-quality extra virgin olive oil can be very expensive. If for no other reason, you probably don’t want to use that for all of your oil needs. That is why most of us have other more moderately-priced oils that we use for general cooking use. We save that special oil for vinaigrettes, for dipping and other uses where the flavor shines through.
What is in your kitchen? Take a look at your olive oil bottles and let me know what you see. I looked in my pantry and I have two different olive oils, only one of which is extra virgin. When I looked for the above items on the extra virgin label, this is what I found. Even though I purchased it from a reputable olive oil retailer, it had no harvest date. (I wonder if this was due to the fact that the oil was brought into the store in a bulk fashion and then bottled and labeled by this particular retailer.) It did list both the country from which the olives were harvested as well as the particular varietals. It was packaged in an appropriate bottle. Since it was a Spanish oil, it did not have COOC certification. All in all, not bad.
The next time I am in my local supermarket, I am going to look for these recommendations. My guess, though, is most of those on the shelf will be sorely lacking. Let me know what you find, not only in the kitchen but also where you shop!