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Extra virgin olive oil is a tricky thing, especially since so much of the stuff out there is decidedly not extra virgin, even though it’s labeled as such. Why is this? Well, apart from the fact that regulation isn’t up to snuff, so much can go wrong between bottling and consumption, such as exposure to light and heat, both enemies of EVOO. So how can you choose the best extra virgin olive oil? Here are some tips from Nonna Box’s certified olive oil expert.
Make sure it’s called “extra virgin olive oil”
There are loads of different olive oil names out there – from pure olive oil to simply olive oil – but know that if it doesn’t say extra virgin olive oil, you’re likely purchasing a refined olive oil that lacks most all the beneficial flavor and health attributes of a true EVOO.
Look at the harvest or expiration date
Premium olive oil producers will usually put the harvest date on the back of their bottle, while larger producers will simply put the expiration date, which is usually a couple years after harvest. Oil really is not ideal for consumption more than a year after harvest (and can easily go bad even sooner), so check the harvest date or expiration date to make sure you aren’t getting an already-old and possibly rancid oil.
Look for single-varietal oils
Generally, mass-produced oils won’t be made from a single varietal, and, they’re often even made of oil from multiple seasons. Seeking out single varietals not only increases your chance of finding more quality oil by producers committed to making good EVOO, but it allows you to experience different flavors and to mix and match oils according to different dishes.
Buy from a trusted supplier
Though you can find good olive oils at big chain stores (Costco impressively puts great emphasis on finding good local olive oil, and Whole Foods often sells from local producers), trusted suppliers such as smaller shops, or knowledgeable vendors such as Nonna Box can increase your chances of finding a good oil.
Make sure it’s sold and stored in the ideal bottle
Since light is not friends with extra virgin olive, it’s important that it be preserved in a bottle that prevents light from entering. This means either a bottle made of colored glass (not plastic!) or even a tin or stainless steel casing. Ultimately, if you are following the other steps mentioned here, the EVOO will, in all likelihood, be sold a dark glass bottle.
Knowing when to buy filtered versus unfiltered
There’s a lot of debate around which is better. Generally, though, if you’re buying premium EVOO from a trusted vendor, then unfiltered could certainly be a great option because it will provide you with more aromas and flavors and more health benefits. That said, if you’re getting extra virgin from the grocery store, opting for filtered might increase your chances of getting a good oil that hasn’t yet gone rancid (a very common problem!). (Read more about UC Davis’s study on filtered versus unfiltered EVOO.)
How to know if your EVOO tastes as it should
You should look for three key attributes when assessing an extra virgin olive oil. First is fruitiness, meaning that it should not only be pleasantly fragrant but should smell of fresh fruit (after all, that’s what it is!). The second characteristic is bitterness. EVOO should display some level of pleasant bitterness, ideally in balance with the other two attributes. Third is pungency, or spiciness. That is, if your olive oil makes you cough from spice, this is a very, very good thing! Not only does it make the oil taste delicious and more complex, but it also signifies that it’s of higher quality, and, best of all, that it’s healthier (the spice comes from polyphenols, essentially antioxidants that are tremendously beneficial to our health in a number of ways). What is EVOO, anyway? Learn more about extra virgin versus other oils.
How to preserve your good EVOO once you find it
Both opened and unopened olive oil should be stored in a dark, cool place, as light and heat will cause your oil to go rancid quickly. The other enemy of olive oil is air, so once you open your EVOO for the first time, be sure to consume it sooner rather than later. Finally, olive oil is not like wine; it goes bad over time. So don’t save your good bottle of oil for a rainy day!