Everything You Need to Know About Buying Great Olive Oil

iStock/Maksim Koval

If you don’t know what to look out for, it’s easy to be overwhelmed by the glut of olive oil options in the grocery store aisle. So many fancy names! So many colors! So many virgins!

To prevent paralysis from setting in next time you go to grab a bottle of EVOO, we tapped the liquid lipid-loving experts at the The Olive Oil Source and Truth In Olive Oil to put together a quick-and-dirty buying guide that’ll guarantee you always walk out with the good stuff.

Flickr/Josh Hallett

1. Dark bottles are best

Like oxygen and heat, exposure to light can prematurely spoil olive oil. To quickly sort the good from the bad, seek out darker glass bottles and overlook the clear ones, especially anything plastic. A quality producer will put care and attention into ensuring their packaging doesn’t mess with the longevity of their product.

2. An “extra virgin” distinction is crucial

If the bottle doesn’t specifically mention that it’s “extra virgin,” steer clear. It indicates that the oil hasn’t been, uh, touched. Or more specifically, refined. Refining is usually only done to remove impurities when using lesser-quality oils, which also removes any good flavor they may have had to begin with.

Flickr/Dominic Lockyer

3. Look out for a precise point of production and certifications

As a rule, most of the highest-quality oils will list the name of the specific mill that produced it. If you can’t find one, skip it. Also look out for what are known as “PDO” or “PGI” certifications, which indicate that a given oil was made in a specific region using traditional production methods.

4. Beware of misleading origin labels

Oftentimes, producers will try to pass off their oil as a “product of Italy” when in fact they were simply packaged there. Many cheaper, lesser-quality oils labeled as such actually originate in places like Greece, Spain, or Tunisia.

Wikimedia/Victor M. Vicente Selvas

5. Color isn’t important

Many people are thrown by the variety in colors -- from clear to dark green -- but they are by no means any indicator of quality. All they indicate is the type of olive used (of the 700+ different olive varieties) and the time they were pressed. Like En Vogue said, be color blind. And you should always listen to En Vogue.

6. Don’t buy in bulk

That incredible deal on EVOO at Costco may be tempting, but be realistic: Are you actually going to finish two liters of the good stuff in under 60 days? If the answer is yes, then damn! We’re impressed! Otherwise, go for something smaller... you want to finish whatever bottle you have within two months of opening it to enjoy it during peak freshness.

Flickr/Jessica Spengler

7. Insist on trying before you buy

Many specialty food stores -- and a handful of more thoughtful grocery chains -- will allow you to sample their selection of oils. You should always shop for a bottle where you’re allowed to taste. The folks at Truth In Olive Oil maintain that quality indicators include a “crisp” mouthfeel, and recommend avoiding anything that feels coarse or greasy.

8. Beware of anachronistic terms

Label terms like “first pressed” or “cold pressed” are most likely only there to make you think the oil inside is more special than it is. In reality, most mass-produced olive oils these days are made using centrifuges, not presses.


9. Look for “best by” dates

Unlike its buddies wine and cheese, olive oil does not get better with age. Generally, oil is the best it will ever be within two years of its harvest, so look for labels that give you an indication of when it’s “best by.” If you can find one that lists the date of harvest, even better.

10. Pay attention to what’s hot

Like any food whose flavor is strongly influenced by its terroir, the best olive oils change slightly from harvest to harvest. That’s why it’s good to put your finger on the pulse of the best of any given year. Olive Oil Source has a comprehensive breakdown of some of the most important and influential annual competitions and rankings to check before you head out to buy your next bottle.

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