Recently there has been much talk about a New York Times opinion column on olive oil. Here is a link to the story:
At the same time that many new high quality and artisanal oil has to come to market the olive oil industry has come under scrutiny for a perceived lack of quality control. Below are a couple of tips to ensure you are buying high quality oils:
The most important thing you can do is look at the label on your oils. The oil should be from the previous year’s harvest. So, for example, the oils you are using should now be from 2013. An unfiltered oil will have a more intense flavor, so I also look for that on the label. It is okay to see some natural sediment on the bottom of the bottle of an unfiltered oil. Think of it as added flavor.
As the Times story elaborates, it is in fact true that even if the label states that the oil is Italian it might be actually be from a different country or a blend of oils from different countries only to be packed in Italy. When you look at the back of the label it will tell you where the olives are sourced. I prefer oils with olives sourced from a single country and if it is a single region or olive grove that is even better.
Furthermore, there is a common misperception that only Italian oil is high quality. That is like saying only Bordeaux produces high quality wine. An oil does not have to be from Italy to be high quality. There are plenty of great oils from Spain, France, California and beyond. Pretty much anywhere they grow wine grapes they grow olives, and like wine there are top quality oils from all over the world. Like all other foodstuffs, the olives will take their flavor from the specific region in which they are grown. From the soil, the water, and the animals that inherently fertilize the land. If you like wine from a specific country or region I recommend trying an olive oil from that same country or region. I like French oils as they are very distinct, tending to be very herbaceous with a flavor reminiscent of Herbs de Provence unlike most other oils that are grassy with a peppery finish. In a blind taste test a French oil is always the easiest to pick out from the rest. They are great for dipping, anointing, dressings and marinades.
If there are bottles opened in the store then smell them. A high quality oil should have a distinct aroma that will fade over time as the oil ages and will not be nearly as strong in lower quality oils. Many top quality oils will have a grass or hay-like smell to them. And obviously, if you can, tasting the oil is recommended. You will find your own taste in oils and be able to know what types of olives and what countries you prefer.
With exposure to light olive oil will oxidize and lose flavor (This is why some stores will use a yellow tint on their lights over the olive oil section. It helps to prevent oxidation). Accordingly, your oil should not be bright yellow in color. It should be a mellow yellow or a deep green. I really like oils that use tinted glass instead of clear glass. This helps prevent the oil from oxidizing. Once you have selected your oil compare it to other bottles of that same oil. If it is a different color from the rest of the oils it most likely has oxidized and you should not purchase that bottle.
Lastly, you may not have noticed that labels rarely, if ever, say “First Cold Pressing” these days. That is because high quality olive oil is mostly extracted through a process of spinning olives in a large centrifuge. So you’re not going to see First Cold Pressing on the labels anymore. And you should not have for a while.
This Week’s Tip: Your more expensive oils are great for dipping, anointing, dressings and marinades. But, if you are using an olive oil for cooking you do not need to use an expensive oil as much of the flavor is burned off when the oil is heated. Instead use a high quality but less expensive house or private label oil and finish the dish with your more expensive oil.