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Mar 26, 2012 02:42 AM

"Best Quality" Olive Oil Advice Please

Ok, so what does it mean when a recipe asks for "good quality" or "high quality" olive oil? I mean is there a way to tell if an olive oil is better just by looking at it?

Other than price or tasting it is there any other indicator of quality that I can use to find the best of the bunch? Label info? Origin? Types of olives? Shades of green for EVOO?

If you can't tell just by looking at the bottle,since they all have such lovely packaging, what are the brands that are considered to have the best quality?

I know all about the different grades of olive oil but am just lost when a recipe requires "best quality." I know what I like (mostly Bertolli) and now I'd like to try some others without spending a fortune on taste tests.

Thanks for your suggestions.

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  1. Think of olive oil the way you would think of wine. There is really no way to discover what brilliance of flavor is contained in a bottle without taking a sip. Similarly, it can get expensive trying them, but the trial and error will be spread over years. Likewise, in many places there are olive oil shops where you can do tastings and learn from where the oils you favor are produced.

    That being said, one premium brand enjoyed by many discriminating palates is Frantoia.

    1. Actually you can tell a good deal by looking at the bottle. Let us assume that the kind of oil that is meant by "best" or "good-quality" is extra virgin olive oil that most people would find too expensive or rare to cook with and so it is normally recommended for use at the table as a condiment or for adding raw to dishes after cooking and before serving. There are objective criteria in addition to personal taste preference.

      Shades of green are meaningless. For one thing, they are easily falsified, for another, if you can see the color, the oil has probably already begun to deteriorate from exposure to light. Thus, other things being equal, the more opaque the packaging (ordinary dark glass is not all that protective), the better the oil has been preserved since pressing. Single varietal olives are fashionable now but not essential -- still they show that care was taken in the oil making. Read the label: make sure the harvest date reflects the most recent season, and that the harvest date is given, not just an expiration date. The designations IGP or DOP are also quality indicators (for Italian oils). Look at how much information is provided on the label. The narrow the growing/production zone, the better the chance that it is a well-made oil. The sort of boutique oils you're asking about tend to come in smaller bottles than the mass market oils, partly because of cost and prestige, but partly because they should not be kept around for ages (no oil should). Use it up, and open a new bottle. You don't have to do taste tests. If you buy according to these criteria, you'll have good oils, one at a time, and eventually decide which you like best without wasting money on non-starters.

      23 Replies
      1. re: mbfant

        "You don't have to do taste tests. If you buy according to these criteria, you'll have good oils, one at a time, and eventually decide which you like best without wasting money on non-starters."

        You do see the inherent contradiction in that, right? I do agree with your approach to limiting the universe, but there is no way to find which oil you like "best" without tasting them. As I said, it's a lot like wine.

        1. re: MGZ

          "You do see the inherent contradiction in that, right?"

          No, I don't. The OP was worried about having to shell out a lot of money for a comparative analysis. I am saying that what is really important can be ascertained from the bottle and personal preferences can be determined at leisure, one oil at a time.

          1. re: mbfant

            I'm sorry, but I don't see the difference in determining personal preferences "at leisure, one bottle at a time[,]" and a taste test. Given prevailing interest rates, present value discount are fundamentally irrelevant. One way or another, you have to taste in order to find your preferences.

            1. re: MGZ

              My understanding of taste test is a line-up of several different oils to be compared at more or less the same time, like a wine tasting. They should be poured into little dark glasses, heated with the hand, and slurped noisily. Seeing how you like a single bottle of oil you put on your salad is different. I am suggesting making a selection on the basis of objective criteria observable from the packaging and label. By buying one oil at a time, the user avoids the waste of buying several bottles he doesn't like or that will lose freshness (or worse) before he can use them (if he opens several bottles at once). I don't really think personal preference is that important in answering the OP's question -- how do you know a "good" oil, which I interpret as oils for use raw. Oils that meet the label criteria and have been properly stored will be fine. If he falls in love with one, he can just buy that one again next time. Interest rates have nothing to do with it.

              1. re: MGZ

                I understand what mbfant is saying: You can either shell out for 5 bottles of Olive Oil at, say, at least $12 per bottle, each needing to be used within a few months, or simply look for important information available on each bottle and simply buy 1. Then, when done with it, using the same method as last time, buy another.

                It would be cheaper to do it that way.

          2. re: mbfant

            mbfant, I thought you gave an informative reply, however, my only quip would be the tiny availability of Olive Oils that have a harvest date on them. Even at "high end" markets, maybe 2 or 3 will have a harvest date, and they will invariably be from an "old" harvest and not the most recent one.

            I understand that none of this is your fault, but, unfortunately, for most of us, we will have to make do with Olive Oils from older harvest unless we can make our way to boutique markets.

            1. re: DougRisk

              "my only quip would be the tiny availability of Olive Oils that have a harvest date on them"

              The OP asked how to know a good oil. Harvest date is one important way. If your retailers sell oil without a harvest date, complain that essential information is being withheld. Also, you don't need a local gourmet shop. All you need is money, since superb oils are available on line.

              1. re: mbfant

                Yeah, you can definitely find this stuff online. I am not a connoisseur, so I don't do that. Also, I doubt saying anything to the staff at Wegmans would do a thing about who they buy from. Although, maybe I am being pessimistic. Like I said, it was a minor quip.

              2. re: DougRisk

                It' s increasingly easy to find extra virgin oils with harvest and sell-by dates, especially if you follow some of the general guidelines in this thread about buying from a producer or a designated or protected region. These need not be expensive: the excellent Sicilian and Puglian oils from Barbera, all harvest dated, are in the $20-$25 liter range in NYC. I've also found excellent Greek (Crete, especially), and Spanish oils in the same range. There are, of course, more expensive, smaller-estate oils, but you can indeed find perfectly delicious and dependable extra virgin oils for everyday use. Sicily, Puglia, and Calabria produce the vast majority of Italian oil, and the best from these regions is really terrific, and mostly fairly priced--try the Cutrera IGP/DOP oils from Ragusa, Sicily Spain has a high basic quality level, too, and produces more oil than Italy.

                1. re: bob96

                  I completely agree on the recommendation for Cutrera. The current DOP bottling of Primo is fantastic.

                  1. re: bob96

                    When I made that comment, I was referring to the oils you find at places like Wegmans and Whole Foods. Whole Foods is about as good as you are going to get, relative to other major chains, and they only have 2 or 3 that have harvest dates on them. (And, the boutiques are not much better, especially when you consider that most of us do not live that close to a boutique shop that carries high end Olive Oils.)

                    Now, like someone said before, there are quite a few online, so, if someone is looking for that they can find it...but, I am not a connoisseur, so I don't do that.

                    But, they are definitely out there.

                    1. re: DougRisk

                      Whole Foods has Cutrera's Primo and, under its own label, other regional Italian oils from Puglia and Sicily, area designated and harvest dated, at fair prices. For everyday use, the DeCecco "only from Italian olives" extra virgin is harvest dated and also a fair value, if nothing specia,l and widely available.

                      1. re: bob96

                        I was at the Whole Foods in Philadelphia yesterday, and, out of curiosity, checked every single bottle they had there for bottling/harvest dates. 3 brands/farms had harvest dates and only 1 was from the more recent harvest (the one with the Mona Lisa on the label).

                        1 other was possibly from the most recent harvest, and that was Bionaturae. It had a sell by day of 2014 and then some computerized markings that might have indicated it was from the late 2011 harvest.

                        1. re: DougRisk

                          And, if you found California Olive Ranch, you might even note that their best-by date is more than two years out from the harvest date -- at least it was on the last few bottles I checked on the east coast. Seems crazy that a major California producer isn't in step with the movers in the California olive trade.

                          1. re: O22039

                            They used to be my favorite Olive Oil, because I knew a little about the place, the did not adulterate their Olive Oil with anything else and it was/is American. However, I did notice that the bottles on the shelves right now have a harvest date from 2010...disappointing.

                            1. re: DougRisk

                              My understanding is that extra virgin olive oil, unopened, stored properly, has a shelf life of 2 years. So assuming that it was a late fall harvest, say November 2010, then it's sell by date would be November 2012. Of course this is assuming that both the producer and all points in between have stored the unopened bottles properly.

                              1. re: souvenir

                                The 2 years timeline may be correct, though, I believe most producers use a 3 year timeline for their "Best Used/Sell By" date.

                                However, and I have no expertise here, I understand that people "in the know" claim that Extra Virgin Olive Oil should be used within months after its harvest and pressing. Again, I cannot comment on what flavors or properties may be lost or gained.

                                1. re: DougRisk

                                  If you follow gurus such as the UC Davis olive people and Tom Mueller (of Extravirginity fame), they will tell you that each year's product should be consumed before the next. It's a little harder to do in practice, but bottle dating (though not required by the FDA) should be uniform through a group. Perhaps I'm dreaming but it would be nice if a California producer didn't exceed the dating scheme that's supported by the California olive oil council.

                                  1. re: O22039

                                    "If you follow gurus such as the UC Davis olive people..."

                                    That was how I found that the California Olive Ranch did not adulterate their oils, though, they seem to ship older stuff instead of more recent harvests.

                                    1. re: DougRisk

                                      The comments in this thread made me curious enough about California Olive Ranch's olive oil harvest and sell dates that I went over to their web site to see if they had any information posted about this.

                                      According to the blog portion of their web site, as of a March 16 post, they were close to releasing their 2011 harvest but hadn't done so yet,

                                      They have another product that they call "limited reserve" which is available sooner and has a shorter shelf life,
                                      but according to this post, that product doesn't go to store shelves.

                                      I'm glad you mentioned them. I found their web site really interesting. It's a brand that's readily available around here so I'll have to look out for an opportunity to taste test their different offerings.

                                      1. re: souvenir

                                        They make an excellent oil, and are poised to be much better known. As is California oil in general.

                            2. re: O22039

                              They have some nice stuff for food service. Including 'bag in box' packaging (like wine in a box) that does a lot to preserve freshness.

                  2. re: mbfant

                    All the above ignores the fact that many expensive oils have a very peppery finish that can completely ruin a dish.

                    For cooking, I would go for a very standard store brand EVOO at your mainstream supermarket if you do not want to spend a lot of money tasting.

                    I don't buy expensive oils unless I know what they taste like beforehand. For tasting, when I go to an Italian or Spanish or Greek restaurant, I ask to see what they are pouring at the table or use to finish their dishes.

                  3. One thing to keep in mind when cooking with olive oil - no matter what the recipe says, it's rarely a good use of your money to use a "boutique" oil when it's going to be heated or covered up by other ingredients. The really expensive stuff should be used as a condiment more or less exclusively, or in recipes where the oil itself is the star. For general cooking, most of the grocery store brands will be just fine - the next time you run out, try a new one and see if you like it better than your old one.

                    BTW, I find that popcorn makes a pretty good medium for tasting olive oils - drizzle it onto freshly popped corn instead of butter.

                    1 Reply
                    1. re: biondanonima

                      Although I wouldn't cook from a tiny bottle of liquid gold, I would not think anyone who could afford to was making a mistake. One reason we buy extra virgin olive oil is for the health benefits, which may well have been lost by the time your supermarket oil reaches your pan. I like to know what I'm eating, and supermarket oil usually doesn't tell me. We buy oil in 5-liter tins from known producers (i.e. known to us or a trusted friend) for basic use and save the boutique bottles for the table, but we would probably sooner go without than buy a mass-market bottle at the supermarket.

                    2. I think Biondanonima is correct. I wouldn't use the real expensive stuff mixed with anything like a salad dressing. Use the expensive stuff in applications where you are going to taste it. I like to taste olive oil with french bread and in fact, that is my primary application for my best olive oil.

                      It looks like you are near New Orleans. Are there any gourmet shops that have a large variety of olive oils near you? Sometimes those places have tasting parties. That would be an excellent way to try several.

                      Bertolli is a good everyday EVOO. It is a blend of many olive oils. They do it for uniformity. Most of the fancier olive oils are single varietals from a specific place and sometimes specific crops.

                      There is a huge variance in taste depending on location of harvest and weather. I once ordered a sampler of EVOO from Italy where I got 5 small bottles from various regions of Italy. There was an unbelievable difference in tastes. One was absolutely horrid. Trust me, I am no gourmet and even I could appreciate how different they were. That was just Italy. They make olive oil all over the world Italy, Greece, Spain, California, Australia and even Africa. Imagine the differences.

                      Sending away for a bunch of olive oil will get expensive so I don't recommend it.

                      It seems to me that Cook's Illustrated liked Columela. Bariani form California is good. That was one that I sent away for. I liked it but with shipping was very expensive.

                      I think if I were you, I would try a few small bottles from the grocery stores until you find one you like.

                      1. You've received many good answers here. A few more tidbits. IGP and DOP are signs of authenticity more than signs of quality. In some cases they go together hand in hand. Each DOP region has a consortia that sets the criteria for that region. It is a very interesting process. If you visit or call, they will help you with purchasing decisions based on food preferences, oil characteristics -- and price!

                        And to the person who wouldn't use good olive oil for salads, there's nothing like a really good olive oil in a simple dressing with field greens. Run a cut clove of garlic in the wooden bowl, add the greens, perhaps a few herbs, swirl olive oil, and a dash of balsamic vinegar, freshly ground salt and pepper, and toss. Then, go back for seconds!

                        3 Replies
                        1. re: O22039

                          We can disagree. I'm just saying I wouldn't use an olive oil that I paid $25 for a pint or even a liter to mix with lemon juice or vinegar but then again I have never tried a vinaigrette made with expensive olive oil and even more expensive 25 year aged balsamic vinegar. I could be missing something there.

                          1. re: Hank Hanover

                            I wouldn't use 25-year old balsamic on salad. I use red-wine vinegar on salad, 25-year old balsamic on strawberries. But I would certainly use my best oil on a particularly good salad of, as O22039 suggests, field greens, though not balsamic. If it's really good, it's too sweet, and if it's not sweet(ish) it's probably junk. I once had 60-year old balsamic (and very superior oil) on halved hard-boiled eggs, though, and that was a revelation.

                          2. re: O22039

                            I think uncooked applications like dressings are one case where I'd definitely want to use a better quality olive oil. I agree with O22039 (though I'd mix the salt and the greens first, add lots of oil, and then maybe a small amount of some kind of acid).

                            In any event, going through good olive oil *too* slowly can be its own kind of problem, as the better quality olive oil should be consumed fairly quickly. I mostly use cheaper olive oil for cooking and other kinds of uses, and don't really use the good stuff in very large quantities, so sometimes I find that I actually use up expensive olive oil where it's not warranted simply so it doesn't go bad.

                            Unlike a 25 year old balsamic, you can't keep a tiny bottle of good olive oil around for a few years.