After salt and pepper, extra-virgin olive oil—especially California extra-virgin olive oil—is the ingredient we can’t do without in the Sunset Test Kitchen. To help us choose among hundreds of Golden State oils, we sat down with a pro—Linda Sikorski, senior buyer at Market Hall Foods, a specialty foods store in Oakland, California.
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. (See Mild or bold? below.)
Harvest date ― more useful than sell-by date. “Olive oil is freshest and most flavorful within a year of harvest,” says Sikorski. (California olives are harvested from October to December, and immediately milled into oil.) “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.
Mild. Later-harvest oils taste more buttery. In terms of varieties, “Arbequina is a great beginner’s oil, mellow with almond-y overtones,” says Sikorski.
Bold. 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
Oil’s worst enemies
Air, heat, and light degrade oil over time. At the store, look for dark bottles, and buy a quantity you can use up in a few months. At home, keep oil in a dark, cool cupboard.