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12.01.09

The Secrets to Buying Olive Oil

Selecting the right oil can be as complicated as buying wine. Here are a few pointers to help you find the perfect—and most budget-appropriate—olive oil for your next soup, salad, or stir-fry.

With holiday season upon us, people who don’t usually cook might find themselves in the kitchen, pan in hand, wondering where to begin. A good place to start is with oil. Olive oil is wonderfully versatile—you can use it for sautéing vegetables, making a salad dressing, or topping a soup with a decorative drizzle. I spoke to Culinistas from my weekly home chef service, The Dish’s Dish, as well as a few other experts about how to choose it—and use it.

Olive oil isn’t particularly good for heavy roasting or frying due to its low smoke point, so consider that before you empty a $60 bottle into your fryer.

1) Decide Your Purpose
Olive oil has so many uses it’s important to think about why you’re buying it. Is it to cook with, to use as garnish, or to add extra flavoring or as salad dressing? If you’re cooking, consider not buying it at all and instead asking yourself, might you be better off with vegetable oil? Olive oil isn’t particularly good for heavy roasting or frying due to its low smoke point so keep that in mind before emptying a $60 bottle into your fryer. Additionally, if you want to cook with something bland—something that merely coats the ingredients as a means for cooking—save yourself the trouble and use a vegetable oil. Olive oil shouldn’t be bland; it should be ripe, creamy, evolving, and complex. “Cooking with olive oil should add an element of flavor complexity to your dish,” says Josie Gordon, a New York-based Culinista for The Dish’s Dish.

2) Make the Grade
All of the experts with whom I spoke suggest using extra virgin olive oil and making sure that it’s purely oil with no added fillers. Extra virgin is pressed without chemicals or heat immediately after the fruit has been picked from the tree. The lower grades of olive oil have a much less regimented process—heat and chemicals help wring the olives of more oil, but the coaxing ingredients degrade the final product. In the United States, the International Olive Council standards for extra-virgin, virgin and on down the line don’t apply, so these values aren’t guaranteed. For this reason, some say buying olive oil produced entirely in Italy or Spain is the way to go. Still, even with U.S.-made olive oil, extra virgin will be the least processed and the purest in flavor.

3) You Get What You Pay For
The process of coaxing oil from olives is expensive and that’s why, in olive oil’s case, high price and high quality are directly correlated. Olive oil ranges from about $12 a bottle to small containers that cost hundreds of dollars. Depending on the ripeness of the olives when picked and pressed, the types of olives, and the growing terrain, olive oil comes in all sorts of flavors and price points. Rachel Sheridan, gourmet buyer for Cube Marketplace in Los Angeles, explains how these varying flavors can work to a chef’s advantage: “Think about how you like to cook—if you like to eat lots of veggies you should pick a light, fruity olive oil, which will complement those dishes. If you are a big steak eater, go for a strong, fruity olive oil.” Gordon clarified that gently cooking food in olive oil would help bring out the oil’s flavor. She recommends buying an inexpensive extra virgin olive oil to use during cooking and then another, special bottle to incorporate into grain salads and for finishing off dishes just before they are served. Use the less pricey bottle for pastas, soups, and even sometimes to bake with.

4) The Who’s Who of Olive Oil
According to the Cooks Illustrated Web site, a grocery store taste test found Colavita extra virgin olive oil for about $18/750 ml to be among the best for a complex taste and Bertolli extra virgin olive oil for $13/750 ml for a more neutral taste. Then again, buying olive oil at the grocery store might not be the best idea. Rachel Narins from the blog Chicks With Knives says, “Shopping for olive oil is a bit like shopping for wine” with so many choices and varieties of tastes. She suggests seeking it out in places like Williams Sonoma or at your local farmers’ market—places where you can taste test—and recommends trying brands such as Tiber Canyon, Malibu Olive Company Romanelli Quattro, and California Mission Gold. Look out for spicy tones vs. buttery and grassy vs. fruity. Again, think about what you’ll be using the oil for. A spicy one might be nice for a salad dressing that contains mustard, and a buttery olive oil might play nicely with a creamier dressing. Some other recommendations are Las Brisas from Jorge Ordoñez, Yellingbo Gold unfiltered, Rainieri, Olio Verde, and Trampetti.

5) Making It Go the Distance
West Coast Culinista and food blogger Gaby Dalkin writes on her blog What’s Gaby Cooking? that it’s smart to keep olive oil in the dark (better yet, buy olive oil in dark or opaque containers) and away from heat. Even while cooking, don’t keep the oil near the stove. Additionally, assess how much olive oil to use in a certain time period and buy accordingly. Olive oil does go bad (and when it does will smell rancid) so it’s better to buy in small quantities if you don’t foresee yourself using it all. Dalkin also says that using younger olive oil is best because of its stronger flavor; it might also last a little longer on the shelf.

6) Putting It to Good Use
Rachel Sheridan likes olive oil so much that it is hard to pick favorites, but “a few standouts include drizzling it over Tuscan ribollita or mixing it into an olive oil cake.” She also suggests spaghetti aglio olio e peperoncino—“a super simple yet comforting dish that basically involves mixing spaghetti with olive oil, garlic, and chili peppers.” Josie Gordon likes to use it in summer minestrone. She’s also a fan of olive oil cake, but hers incorporates semolina as well and she tops it with figs. A New Yorker to the core, she says you can’t go wrong drizzling it over a potato, anchovy, olive, and garlic pizza. Gaby Dalkin takes out her high-end olive oil and blends it with balsamic vinegar to pour over caprese salad. She also covers pizza crust with it and then lays on smoked salmon, crème fraiche, and caviar. Rachel Narins is a fan of using it as a garnish on soups; her favorites are white bean, carrot-ginger, and anything pureed. “It really is terrific as an unexpected ice cream flavor,” she says. And it’s wonderful to add to “lightly steamed kale or any other dark green leafy vegetable.”

7) Universal Health Care
Olive oil helps lower cholesterol levels. It contains mono unsaturated fat, which can reduce the risk of heart disease, and polyphenols and antioxidants that promote heart health.

Plus: Check out Hungry Beast for more news on the latest restaurants, hot chefs, and tasty recipes.

Jill Donenfeld founded The Dish's Dish™ in 2006 as a means to encourage busy people to eat better – however it's defined for the individual. She has traveled and cooked extensively, deriving pleasure from combining the two – learning culinary techniques in Vietnam, working at an organic garden café in Sweden and penning a cookbook of cuisine from Madagascar over the course of a five-month stay in the country. Her mission is to cultivate personal satisfaction and healthier living through home cooking.