How to choose the best olive oil

Learn the lingo of olive oil labels to identify the best

Olive oil is made by crushing olives to a paste. Freerun oils are those that drip from the paste. But most are extracted by pressing or spinning the paste in a centrifuge. For cold press, no heat is applied. The finest oil, extra-virgin, is often described as a first cold press and unrefined. Additional pressings, often with heat or chemicals, produce lesser-quality oils. Oils may be filtered to make them clear; however, unfiltered oils may clarify on standing.

A California olive oil must be made only with olives grown in the Golden State. If it's an estate oil, all the olives were grown on the owner's land. If the olive oil is labeled organic, the trees are chemical-free.

The label may specify when the fruit was picked. Usually, early harvest means fall to winter, late harvest winter to spring. Early oils tend to be green and taste grassy, while late oils are typically gold and buttery-tasting. The olive varieties may or may not be identified on the label.

Store olive oil airtight in a cool, dark place. Do not refrigerate.

How should olive oil taste?

The California Olive Oil Council (COOC) seal "Certified Extra Virgin" on the label means the COOC has tasted and approved the oil's quality. Approved oils rate as close to flawless as possible. Descriptions of tastes or aromas include fruity, grassy, fresh, clean, and pungent. Oils may have have a slightly bitter flavor, reminiscent of raw artichokes, but they shouldn't be harsh. Nor should they taste or smell musty, fermented, muddy, vinegary, metallic, or rancid.

Three experts ― Darrell Corti of Corti Brothers specialty food and wine merchants in Sacramento; Maggie Klein, author of Feast of the Olive: Cooking with Olives and Olive Oil and co-owner of Oliveto Cafe & Restaurant in Oakland; and Giovanna Passalacqua, a COOC-trained olive oil taster ― explain how to evaluate oils: First check for aromas, then taste (on cubes of bread). An olive oil should taste good ― a judgment anyone can make.

What's on an olive oil label?

California Olive Oil Council certification ― this verifies that the oil has passed the chemical and sensory standards that qualify itas extra-virgin, the highest grade.

Style or varietal ― some makers give information about the flavors to guide your choice.

Harvest date ― more useful than sell-by date. “Olive oil is freshest and most flavorful within a year of harvest,” says Linda Sikorski, senior buyer at Market Hall Foods. “Don’t save it!”

Award seals ― the most prestigious olive-oil competitions are the L.A. International, Good Food Awards, and New York International.

Mild or bold?

A good oil balances fruity, pungent, and bitter flavors, but intensity varies depending on maturity and variety, where fruit is grown, and miller style.

Later-harvest oils taste more buttery. In terms of varieties, “Arbequina is a great beginner’s oil, mellow with almond-y overtones,” says Sikorski.

Oils from early-harvest fruit taste greener and more bitter and pungent. Tuscan-style varietals, like Frantoio, Leccino, and Maurino, fall into the bold category.

Best in class

All-purpose ― For sautéing, baking, and salads, look for extra-virgin oils by Corto ($22/liter); Enzo ($20/500 ml.); and
Séka Hills ($18/500 ml.)

Finishing ― High heat dissipates flavors, so save these complex oils for drizzling: Bondolio ($22/250 ml.); Katz Rock Hill Ranch ($22/375 ml.); Mas­siglia ($35/375 ml.; ); and

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