True extra-virgin olive oil hasn’t always been easy to find; you can spend a lot of money and still end up with mislabeled, subpar stuff. But late last month, the USDA finally instituted the country’s first-ever standards for grades of olive oil.
Although it’s voluntary to follow the standards, their existence is bound to help Western olive oil shine. Fresh, pure flavors are part of what qualifies an oil as extra-virgin, and, not having far to travel, our oil is often the freshest around.
Plus, a new super-high-density planting approach in California (which produces 99 percent of U.S. olive oil) is now turning out high-quality oil at a much lower cost, while using less land and water too. Better, cheaper, fresher, correctly labeled, more sustainably grown extra-virgin olive oil: That’s delicious news.
Finding and storing the good stuff:
Taste it first. Try the oil before buying if you can (some stores allow sampling), not only to make sure it’s fresh but also to get exactly the style you like.
Buy fresh. Choose bottles labeled with the harvest date. Unlike wine, olive oil degrades as it ages—it should be consumed within 18 months.
Look for the seal. The California Olive Oil Council (COOC) does the most rigorous quality check in the U.S.; its seal guarantees that an oil is extra-virgin.
Take care of it. Find a cool, dark place to store your oil. Heat and light will break it down and turn it rancid, so next to your stove is not the best storage spot.
TYPES OF OLIVE OIL
The USDA recently adopted these international standards for olive oil grades:
- Extra-Virgin The highest grade you can buy; the olives are pressed without using chemicals or adding heat, and they go through the press only once. To qualify as extra-virgin, the oil must also be free of specified taste “defects” and have less than 0.5 percent acidity.
- Olio Nuovo Italian for “new oil,” this is an extra-virgin oil less than 3 months old. Intensely green, with a pungent, vibrant taste, it quickly loses its bite, so use it right away. (Most California-produced brands of olio nuovo appear in late fall, soon after the harvest, and often sell out quickly.)
- Virgin A lower grade than extra-virgin, lighter in flavor and higher in acidity.
- Olive oil Virgin oil blended, in varying ratios, with refined oil, which comes from olives that have already been pressed at least once; heat or chemicals may be used to extract more oil from the paste. Neutral in flavor and cheap.
- Light Refined oil with a small amount of virgin oil, if any; may also have other vegetable oils. “Light” doesn’t mean lower in calories, just a lighter taste.
- Infused/flavored Oil in which fruit or herbs were steeped. Can also mean the olives were pressed with fruit or herbs, or that fruit or herb oils were added to the oil after pressing; both methods result in a more intense flavor than the steeping.