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Pantry Staples

Everything You Need to Know About Buying and Cooking with Olive Oil

One of nature’s richest sources of fats with anti-inflammatory properties, extra-virgin olive oil is linked to a wide range of benefits, from cardiovascular health to weight control to pain relief. We’re taking the mystery out of buying, storing and using this Mediterranean superfood.

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Where It Comes From

Did you know that the olive is a fruit? It grows on trees and has a pit in the middle, and like most fruits, olives are rich in antioxidants. Olive oil is just the juice from pressed olives. According to experts from California Olive Ranch, there are over 2,000 varieties grown throughout the world, and each varietal has its own unique flavor profile. As a result, batches made with one type of olive will taste different than those made with another variety of olive.

How It’s Made

In the Northern Hemisphere, the olive harvest takes place from fall (California, Italy, Greece) to as late as between December and March (Spain). In southern regions (Chile, Argentina, Australia), olives are picked between May and July. Typically, harvesting begins early when olives are green, continues through the ripening process and wraps up when the olives are more purple. When the olive is picked will influence its flavor.

Harvesting can either be done by hand, with rakes or by shaking the tree so that the fruit can fall into nets. A more modern and efficient technique is to machine harvest the olives. Conscientious harvesters minimize the damage to the olives by never letting them touch the ground and by getting them to the mill as soon as possible – ideally within 24 hours of harvest.

The basic procedure for making olive oil has remained the same for thousands of years: Harvest the olives, wash them, crush them into a paste, separate the solids from the liquid and further separate the water from the oil. No chemicals or solvents are used in this process.

Photo by Olive & Mango

How It Should Taste

Tasting EVOO is similar to wine tasting. You want to pour a small amount of oil into a glass and place the bottom of the glass in the palm of your hand to warm up the oil. Gently swirl the glass to release the aromas. Then sniff the oil and note the aromas – does it smell like grass or fruit? Next, take a small slurp and suck the oil to the back of your throat – this spreads the oil throughout your palate and helps release the flavors. Lastly, swallow the oil and take note of the flavors and any bitterness or pungency. A good EVOO will give you a slight burn after you swallow. This indicates the oil is rich in antioxidants called polyphenols. Bitterness at the back of your tongue tells you it’s pure.

Bitter, pungent and fruity are positive flavor attributes of EVOO. You don’t want your oil to taste moldy, yeasty or muddy. If it smells like crayons or stale nuts, it’s likely old and the oil has gone rancid.

What Affects The Quality Of Olive Oil

Because EVOO is a fresh-pressed juice, it is highly perishable. To maintain the freshness of your olive oil, consider the four factors that have the most impact on quality.

  • Time: Unlike wine, olive oil does not get better with age. Once bottled, olive oil will last 18 to 24 months in an unopened bottle. Once opened, use it within six months.
  • Light: Exposure to light will deteriorate the quantity and quality of antioxidants found in the oil. Store your oil in a pantry and minimize the amount of time it spends on the counter.
  • Heat: The optimal temperature to store olive oil is 65 to 73°F. Warmer conditions can cause unpleasant odors to develop.
  • Oxygen: Exposure to oxygen can cause oxidation, which will cause flavors to go off. Some bottles are topped off with nitrogen to protect the oil from oxygen until opened for the first time.

EVOO Health Benefits

There’s a lot of talk about the health benefits of fat, but not all fat is created equal. EVOO is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids (MUFAs), which studies have found to contain anti-inflammatory properties. EVOO is also rich in antioxidants called polyphenols. Polyphenols can help protect against oxidative stress, which may decrease risk of myriad diseases.

  • Heart Disease: According to the FDA, there is some evidence suggesting that 1.5 tablespoons of EVOO daily may reduce risk of heart disease when used to replace oils higher in saturated fat. This swap may improve levels of LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, as well as potentially lowering blood pressure.
  • Alzheimer’s Disease: Studies suggest that polyphenols in EVOO, such as oleocanthal, may reduce the cognitive decline associated with Alzheimer’s disease.
  • Diabetes: A lower-carbohydrate diet that’s rich in healthy fats like EVOO has the potential to help regulate blood sugar levels and improve insulin sensitivity.
  • Osteoporosis: EVOO may help the body absorb calcium into the bones, giving it the potential to help keep osteoporosis at bay among the elderly.
  • Oxidative Stress: Environmental stressors, such as pollution and fried food, can cause free radicals to form, which may increase risk for a number of inflammatory disease states. The MUFAs and vitamin E (also an antioxidant) in EVOO may help combat inflammation and aid in protecting the body from free radical damage.
  • Brain and Nerve Health: Your brain is about 60% fat, which means it needs fat for nourishment. Fat is also an important building block for cell membranes and nerve insulation.

With so many potential benefits, it’s no wonder that countries where EVOO is liberally consumed, such as in the Mediterranean regions, have lower rates of heart disease, diabetes and obesity.

Related: Should You Refrigerate Your Cooking Oils? 

Cooking with EVOO

There’s a long-standing belief that EVOO should not be used for cooking because it has a low smoke point. However, that is not always true. The fresher the oil, the higher the smoke point. High-quality EVOO’s smoke point ranges from about 374°F to 425°F, which makes it perfect for baking, sautéing and frying – what a great way to impart flavor and keep your meals healthier! When baking or cooking with EVOO, choose one that’s mild and buttery in flavor. For salad dressings and finishing oils, opt for a bolder and spicier EVOO.

Related: Warm Marinated Olives Recipe

Olive Oil Fraud

You’ve probably read the headlines and heard the stories: Olive oil isn’t actually pure olive oil. It’s been cut with cheaper, less flavorful oils, and it may not come from where the bottle claims it originates. This can be the case, but the vast majority of oil on the market is compliant with the regulations. There is no mandatory requirement for EVOO in the US yet, but the FDA is working on one. Currently, any producer that bottles or produces in California must comply with the Olive Oil Commission of California (OOCC) regulations. Any oil bottled in Europe, though it is sold in the US, must follow the EU’s strict requirements and enforced mandatory standards. If a producer is a member of the California Olive Oil Council (COOC) or North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA), it is required to ensure its products are compliant with strict regulations, including that the oil was bottled correctly and is pure.

6 Things to Look for When Buying EVOO

1. Dark Glass Bottle: Light is one of EVOO’s enemies, and dark glass bottles are the perfect foil for light. Store your EVOO in a dark pantry rather than on the kitchen counter.

2. Harvest Date: On the back of the bottle, you will find a “Best Before” date. That date is usually two years after the oil was bottled. More important is the “Harvest Date” that only some manufacturers put on the label. Choose a bottle with a harvest date closest to today’s date. The fresher the better!

3. Ingredient List: The only ingredient in your EVOO should be EVOO. Some manufacturers will blend olive oil with other oils to save on cost. If that’s the case, it’s not EVOO, by definition.

4. Single Oil vs. Blend: Some bottles of EVOO contain the juice from a single variety of olive, while others are a blend of two or more olives. One is not better than the other. In this case, it’s purely a taste preference.

5. Certified: The Olive Oil Commission of California is the only regulatory body in the U.S. that evaluates and mandatorily enforces grade determination for olive oil harvested in California (where most of the EVOO from the U.S. is produced). Voluntary certification is available from several other bodies, like the North American Olive Oil Association and the California Olive Oil Council.

6. Country Of Origin: Olives have been harvested for thousands of years, originating in the Mediterranean basin, then transplanted to Greece. Later, they expanded into Italy, North Africa and Spain. Later still, they were brought to the Americas and Australia. Each country produces different types of olives across varying climates, which can result in different flavor profiles.

Related: Olive Oil Poached Fish Recipe

Exceptional EVOOs

With expert input on selecting the best EVOOs on the market, we’ve curated this list so you can get the most out of every last polyphenol-packed drop.

California Olive Ranch Reserve Miller’s Blend Extra Virgin Olive Oil

SALAD’S BEST FRIEND – Breathe new life into your salads with a drizzle of California Olive Ranch Reserve Miller’s Blend Extra Virgin Olive Oil, bold and peppery in flavor. It is the recipient of multiple awards including winning Silver in Olive Japan. With a distinct scent of California olives and discernable notes of pepper, it brings flavor and freshness to an otherwise-ordinary salad. $15,

Castello ColleMassari olio extravergine di oliva Toscano

ELEGANCE IN A BOTTLE – The award-winning Castello ColleMassari olio extravergine di oliva Toscano is a blend of three classic Tuscan olive varieties, including the rare Olivastra Seggianese, grown only in Alta Maremma. The quality of olives used is evident in the oil’s subtly spicy-meets-fruity aroma and flavor. Enjoy it as a drizzle over cooked or raw veggies. $35,

Terra Delyssa Extra Virgin Tunisian Olive Oil

KITCHEN STAPLE – Bring North Africa into your kitchen with Terra Delyssa Extra Virgin Tunisian Olive Oil. Its smoothness blends into dishes without overpowering the ingredients, making it ideal for daily use. Terra Delyssa prides itself on producing 100% Tunisian olive oil, and starting this summer, each bottle will have a QR code you can scan to follow your oil’s journey from orchard to mill to bottling and finally, to the retailer where you picked it up. $10,

Kosterina Original Extra Virgin Olive Oil

A TRIP TO CRETE – Kosterina Original Extra Virgin Olive Oil’s grassy aroma will transport you to the orchards of Greece. Made from early-harvest olives with more chlorophyll than their older counterparts, Kosterina boasts a high polyphenol content of over 400 mg/kg. Our editors enjoy this versatile oil over greens, fresh pizza or for dipping ciabatta and sourdough. $24,

Lucini Premium Select Extra Virgin Olive Oil

A TOUCH OF LUXURYLucini Premium Select Extra Virgin Olive Oil has a complex flavor reminiscent of almonds. Produced from only the first cold press of olives from 100-year-old trees, it’s a high-quality oil that’s exceptionally low in acidity and can handle the heat of stove-top cooking while also being ideal for dipping and finishing. $21,

Origin 846 Unfiltered Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil

A DEPENDABLE DRIZZLE – Designed for versatility, Origin 846 Unfiltered Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil is another Tunisian gem that can be used for drizzling, dipping, marinades, dressings, sautéing, roasting and baking. Each dark glass bottle is embossed with measuring markings so you can pour precisely what you need. $11,

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