24 April 2010

How to Choose High-Quality Extra Virgin Olive Oil

For the kind of olive oil you drizzle raw on cold or room temperature food, you need high-quality extra virgin. It is worth spending more money that you would on normal pantry supplies for that extra-fresh, fruity Mediterranean flavor. I am a cheapskate but this year I spent $14 on a tall thin bottle and I do not regret it. Once you've bought the oil, store it in a dark, cool place (not cold, like a refrigerator) and make sure the cap is tightly closed. Definitely keep it far, far away from the stovetop. After a two or three years the oil will lose its flavor and you will need a new one.

But how do you know which oil tastes best? The most direct way is to go to your local farmer's market, if you have one, and taste their oils, if they have them. Should this not be possible, go to the highest quality supermarket or specialty store you can find. Ignore olive oil that is less than $10. Now you have to read the label. The olives used for the very best olive oil will all grow in the same region. Notice I did not say country, and I did not say Italy. If you want a clear, sparkling taste you need the olives to grow in the same soil and climate. My current olive oil is made solely from olives in Tuscany, and you can taste the difference. But even if the olives come from the United States, you know it's going to be decent if they all came from the same farm! Here's the California Olive Oil Council's website, if you're curious. They have a list of certified extra virgin olive oils that are:
  • exceeding strict international standards for True Extra Virgin Olive Oil
  • mechanically extracted without chemicals or heat
  • less than 0.5% free oleic acid
  • no taste defects

The International Olive Council gives out awards every year for the best extra virgin olive oils. Go to their website and click on the links to the winners of the Mario Solinas Quality Award.

Also, of course, check the date. You want the freshest oil. Plus, avoid the temptation to get garlic-basil oil, or whatever. That stuff can taste decent in the right situtations, but it loses its flavor faster and in any case you shouldn't use it as your basic go-to extra-virgin. For ultimate versatility, plain is best.

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