Buying good olive oil is a whole lot more than looking for the words “organic” and “extra-virgin” on the label. Did you know, for example, that olive oil has a season? We discovered this and more with two olive oil experts, who want to help you buy only the very best organic olive oil for your kitchen.
1. Know what you’re looking for in a good organic olive oil.
If you haven’t tasted a great olive oil before, it can be hard to know what to look for. Take any opportunity you have to taste great olive oils to familiarize your palate with them, either by buying small quantities of oil or by going to a tasting at a gourmet supermarket.
Tasting olive oil should be like tasting wine. First, you’ll want to smell the oil.
“The olive oil should contain a fruity, grassy and sweet aroma or perhaps even ripe and tropical,” says David Neuman, certified master taster and CEO of Gaea North America. “If you are reminded of a gym locker, sweaty socks, stinky football pads, feet, cheese, crayons, old peanuts, or a compost heap that is too wet, that oil has not been made with fresh, healthy olives.”
Next, you’ll want to taste — firstly for the echoes of the aroma on the nose, and secondly to make sure the oil is still good. While oils can’t get corked like wine, they can become rancid.
“You will taste it as soon as the oil is in your mouth,” says Neuman. “If you get an impression of crayons, wax, window putty, old linseed oil or oil paint, rancid walnuts or peanuts, that’s rancidity. And it will have a greasy, fatty mouthfeel.”
2. Choose your country of origin.
Olive oil is made in different countries around the world – mainly places with hot summer climates and evenings that aren’t too cool.
The 2016 season isn’t looking terribly favorable across the board, though things are looking up from disastrous 2015 harvests.
California won’t be seeing any increase in production this year, but you might want to be avoiding Californian oil for the most part anyway, according to Neuman, who notes that ninety percent of California’s production is super high density production grown on vines for ease.
“This type of farming yields a very different oil in both taste and nutritional benefit than ‘old world’ handpicked dry farmed olive oil,” says Neuman. If you opt for local oils, be sure to be extra careful to ask about harvesting and growing methods.
Italy has been facing olive oil scandals and fraud for years that will be exacerbated by a bad 2016 harvest, with a 40 percent reduced production rate from last year. In other words, expect prices to go up and less Italian oil to be available.
France’s harvest has been largely threatened by widespread drought throughout the south of the country, making Provençal oils fairly scarce and expensive.
Spain is expected to have a fairly good harvest, but much of 2016’s oil will be stockpiled for next year, according to Neuman.
“They had a very good summer,” says Kohlmeyer, who sources La Tourangelle’s oil from Spain. “No bugs, no insects, but a little bit desperate for water.”
Tunisia, meanwhile, will have a fairly good harvest, but given the very hot weather in the country, the antioxidant level of the oil will be low, meaning it won’t have a great shelf life.
Neuman, whose olive oil hails from Greece, notes that, “Now is the time to ‘Go Greek’ as Greece has the volume, quality and price point that the U.S. consumer is looking for.”
While Greece’s crop will not be particularly good this year, Greece does not import olive oil like Italy has to, and it therefore has a surplus to sell directly to consumers.
You can easily keep tabs on your favorite olive oil origins with Olive Oil Times’ news page.
But it’s not just the country of origin that matters – the specificity of where the olives are grown plays a part as well.
“When we buy organic olive oil in Spain, we tend to work with organic orchards who are located at a high altitude,” explains Kohlmeyer. “When you get to higher altitude you’re usually going to have an olive oil that has a higher antioxidant level and oleic acid content, so these two things will make the olive oil higher quality and also more stable over time.”
3. Choose your olive variety.
Olive oil can be made with a number of different olive varieties, each of which will add a distinctive flavor and characteristic to the finished oil. Matthieu Kohlmeyer, founder and CEO of La Tourangelle, notes that his company looks for Picual olives, which have very high levels of polyphenols, giving the oil a peppery taste and allowing it to stay fresher longer – for up to two years after press.
“We all know today that antioxidants are the key to staying young, because they prevent DNA breakdown in the body,” says Kohlmeyer. “So basically the same thing happens for the olives.”
One very popular variety of olive oil olive is the Arbequina from California, which Kohlmeyer notes is easy to appreciate given its low levels of acidity and peppery aromas and its fruitiness, which he compares to orange juice. It does, however, have a low natural antioxidant level, giving it a shorter shelf-life than some.
The best way to decide which variety is best for you is to taste single-origin oils and compare their flavors. You might even like different oils for different dishes.
4. Pay attention to harvest date.
While an oil will be fresh for more or less time depending on the olive that is used and the antioxidants contained within, olive oil is generally good for about a year from time of harvest – unlike wine, it does not get better with age.
Do some research to find out when the olives in your chosen brand were harvested – harvest usually begins in October for premium estates and continues until December, depending on the varietals and the growing region, according to Kohlmeyer.
Not only will knowing when the olives were harvested give you a good idea of how long the oil will be good for, but it also might give you a glimpse into the final quality of the oil.
“Each year, olive oil producers race against the clock to the to get the perfect balance of maturity of their fruit before the first frost of the year,” says Neuman. “Gaea harvests olives from November through December while they are still green. Pressing these greener olives results in more intense, robust, fruity and grassy flavors.”
While growers must wait until the olives are ripe enough to pick, waiting too long can have disastrous effects as well. Not only can an early frost jeopardize the olive’s ability to be used in a true extra-virgin olive oil, the larger an olive gets, the blander it becomes.
“If you wait too long to harvest, you get bigger olives, which are much easier to crush, but the quality of the olive oil is going to get worse,” explains Kohlmeyer, who notes that larger olives are engorged with water, which dilute the final flavor profile of the oil.
5. Choose an estate that crushes cold and fast.
You’ve probably already seen the “cold-pressed” label on your favorite high-quality extra-virgin olive oil. Because the crushing process heats the olives, it’s imperative to keep the surrounding area cool to keep from “cooking” the olive oil in the process.
Ideally, the olives should be crushed no later than 24 hours after they’re taken off the tree to keep the quality of the oil from deteriorating, so be sure to ask questions and make sure that’s the case with the producer you choose.
6. When in doubt, check the price.
If you’re unsure about the quality of the oil that you’ve chosen, price can be a good quick indicator. Neuman suggests paying over $10 for a 17oz bottle of single-origin extra-virgin olive oil to be fairly sure of getting a quality product.
And above all, if once you get your oil home, it’s not what you expected, don’t be afraid to be assertive.
“An ethical producer will do everything they can to get a quality product to you, but they lose control once the bottle is out there in the distribution chain,” says Neuman. “A good store will want you to return the bottle so they are aware of the issue and can improve their storage and handling practices.”
No matter the oil you choose, once it’s opened, it should be consumed within three months.
“Olive oil has three enemies: oxygen, light, and heat,” explains Neuman. “When exposed to those elements, the oil will turn rancid more quickly.”
Keeping oil in a firmly sealed darker container away from heat and sunlight is your best bet to keeping your oil as fresh as possible.
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