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Extra virgin olive oil is supposed to taste fruity, pungent and bitter, food writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins told us. ValentynVolkov/Getty Images
I've Always Wondered ...

What you should know when you’re buying olive oil

Janet Nguyen Dec 8, 2023
Extra virgin olive oil is supposed to taste fruity, pungent and bitter, food writer Nancy Harmon Jenkins told us. ValentynVolkov/Getty Images

This is just one of the stories from our “I’ve Always Wondered” series, where we tackle all of your questions about the world of business, no matter how big or small. Ever wondered if recycling is worth it? Or how store brands stack up against name brands? Check out more from the series here.

Steve Wittkoff asks: 

Can you demystify olive oil for me? Do I really care if my extra virgin olive oil is Spanish, Mediterranean or cold pressed? And what does “extra virgin” mean anyway? Is it an olive oil industry inside joke like being “kind of” pregnant?

Olive oil, which has been used in cooking for thousands of years, comes in varieties like extra virgin, regular or light and hails from different countries, including Spain, Italy and the U.S.  

Extra virgin olive oil, the highest quality olive oil, is supposed to taste fruity, pungent and bitter, explained Nancy Harmon Jenkins, a food writer who authored the book “Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil” and has a weekly substack called On the Kitchen Porch.

“The best olive oil has a grassy herbal freshness. It has an aroma of cut grass – that wonderful green fragrance that comes out of a freshly mowed lawn. And on top of that, you swish it around in your mouth and you get a sense of the complexity, the bitterness, the fruitiness — which is important in the sense that it is olive oil and not sesame oil or walnut oil or canola oil. That it’s olives that are in there,” Jenkins explained. 

“Sometimes if you swish it around in your mouth, you’ll feel that bitterness in the sides of your tongue and your cheeks. And then when you swallow it, if it’s really fresh oil, you get this slight burn in the back of your throat. And that’s what’s called piquancy,” she continued.  

With so many different varieties and different price points, trying to choose the right olive oil can be intimidating. We spoke to olive oil experts to find out what you should know when you’re purchasing a bottle. 

Does country of origin matter? 

Experts recommend buying extra virgin olive oil, or EVOO, and say that it can be from anywhere.  

“You can get Spanish oil, you can get great Tunisian oil, you can get Greek oil, of course, you can get great Italian oil,” said Carl Ipsen, a history professor at Indiana University who’s working on a book called “From Cloth Oil to Extra Virgin: The Modern History of Olive Oil.”

“Now, there’s also inferior oil made in all of those places,” Ipsen added. “So there’s a huge variety in quality even within the extra virgin category.”

Ipsen compares it to buying wine – you can’t definitively say whether Spanish wine is better or worse than Italian wine. (Although you can certainly debate it.) 

However, while you can’t definitively say one country makes the best extra virgin olive oil, you should buy from a single country of origin, said Carol Firenze, author of the book “The Passionate Olive – 101 Things to do with Olive Oil.”

“Since EVOO is best produced within 24-48 hours of harvesting the olives, the highest quality EVOO will have a single country origin,” Firenze said. 

She also noted that you should also look for seals of authenticity, like the Denominazione di Origine Protetta, or DOP, label which is put on Italian products, while you should look for a COOC label on California olive oil, which means it’s been certified by the California Olive Oil Council. 

What should you know about dates on the labeling? 

Harmon Jenkins said the first thing you should see on the label, if it’s possible, is the date the olive oil was produced. The fresher the olive oil is, the better. 

“It’s very important to understand that olive oil does not improve with age. It’s not like wine. In fact, it can decline tremendously with age,” Harmon Jenkins. 

So if the olive oil was produced this year, it will say that it was harvested and pressed 2023 to 2024, Harmon Jenkins said.

She also added that the “use by” date is not very helpful.

“The ‘use by’ date is two years from the date of bottling, and the olive oil can be held — and usually is held — in big tanks, so to speak, until it’s time to send it to market. And then they’ll bottle it. So you could have an oil that was kept for a year and a half, and then bottled and then the use by date would be three and a half years from the time it was produced. And that’s not good,” Harmon Jenkins said. 

Firenze said olive oil is best 18 to 24 months from harvest date, and once you open it, you should use it within 90 days. 

What does “cold pressed” olive oil mean? 

You might occasionally see the description “cold pressed extra virgin olive oil,” but experts say that this description is redundant. 

“It doesn’t matter for the consumer, because if it’s extra virgin, it has to be cold pressed. It’s like saying gluten-free orange juice. Orange juice by its nature is gluten free, extra virgin olive oil by its nature is cold pressed,” explained Harmon Jenkins. “What it means is no additional heat was added to extract more oil from the olives.” 

What does “extra virgin” mean? 

The term extra virgin olive oil was developed in 1960, Ipsen said.  He explained that virgin olive oil means that the oil has been only produced by mechanical means, and hasn’t been refined, which is a chemical process. Canola oil, for example, entails refining. 

If olive oil is extra virgin, its fatty acid content also has to be less than 0.8%, and it has to be tested by a panel that’s determined it doesn’t have any defects, he said.

He said that if you take a bottle of EVOO, put it out in the sun for a few days (which he noted is one of the worst things you can do with it), it’ll no longer be extra virgin olive oil because it will have gone rancid. Experts recommend storing your olive oil in a cool, dark area. 

Regular olive oil, on the other hand, is made up of a mix of refined and virgin olive oils, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. You also have light olive oil, which is “made from refined oil stripped of odor, color, and taste,” according to the California Olive Ranch.

The California Olive Ranch explained this is a marketing term and doesn’t mean it has fewer calories or fat than EVOO.

How much should I spend on olive oil and when should I use it for cooking?

This question of how much you should spend on olive oil will depend on your personal budget and preference. Ipsen suggested that if you’re using it straight from the bottle, say, in salad dressings, you’ll want to use the best you can afford. But he buys EVOO from a major label for cooking. 

“I personally can’t justify spending 35 bucks a liter for oil that I cook with, because it does deteriorate,” he said. “It isn’t bad, but it loses those distinctive qualities.” 

But he does cook with it. Some people have advised against cooking with EVOO over high temperatures, since it has a lower smoke point than other oils. EVOO has a smoke point of between 325 and 375 degrees Fahrenheit, compared to vegetable oil, which has a smoke point of 400 and 450 degrees Fahrenheit, according to Serious Eats. (Some say the smoke point of EVOO can reach 410 degrees Fahrenheit.) 

Harmon Jenkins also cooks with EVOO and said it’s fine to use it that way. 

“The ‘Joy of Cooking’ recommends deep fat frying at 350 to 360 degrees. So if you’re getting up into the four hundreds, you’re not doing yourself a favor no matter what you use, because it’s too hot,” Harmon Jenkins said. 

Serious Eats investigated this issue, and found that cooking with olive oil over high heat “isn’t nearly as problematic as most of us imagine.” 

The publication wrote that if you use it to sear foods with other ingredients “its impact is minimal to none,” but it can affect the taste of deep fried food, so you should use what you prefer. 

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