8 Tips for Choosing and Using Olive Oil

Olive Oil Tasting

A recent post on Marinated Feta elicited some interesting comments and questions about olive oil. Here’s a few tips that I follow when buying, using, and storing oil:

1. Keep olive oil out of the light.

I know you’ve spent a lot of money on your oil and you want to look at all those pretty labels lined up on your countertop. But too bad; it’s one of the absolute worst things you can do to oil. Light destroys olive oil, and other specialty oils as well, so stow it away. Nothing destroys olive oil faster than light. Except heat.

2. Keep olive oil away from heat.

That means don’t store your olive oil on that shelf above your stove, even though that’s where it’s handy. Keep it away from sunlight as well. It’s best not to store olive oil in the refrigerator. If you do, when you take it out the condensation can dilute the oil and cause it to spoil quicker.


3. If you can, taste before you buy.

Oil changes from batch-to-batch, and many places offer you a chance to taste it before you buy. Take a good smell first; a lot can be determined by how the oil smells before you even taste it. Is it nutty, grassy, sweet, oily, or ‘green’?

All those are qualities you might like, or not. Look for markets in your area that offer tastings, and patronize the stores that do as thanks in return.

4. Have two olive oils on hand.

I keep one less-expensive olive oil for cooking—my ‘house’ oil right now is Puget— and I keep at least one other for salads and serving with uncooked dishes, which is always a premium, top-quality olive oil. The one I buy depends on my mood or what foods are in season at the time. Right now I’m using two different ones. My arbequinia oil from Spain is great; fruity and sweet (and goes well with chocolate…which is always in season!), while the Algerian olive oil is salty and heavy and perfect with tomatoes and Greek cheese.

I personally don’t recommend cooking with an expensive oil since the finer flavors get lost in the madness. A less-pricey, but good-quality oil is fine to use for sautéeing onions and vegetables. And even marinating feta.

5. Don’t pay much attention to the country of origin.

Just like people say, “American food is bad“, there’s good American food and there’s bad American food. Same with olive oil. There’s good Tuscan olive oil and there’s bad Tuscan olive oil. Just because something says ‘Tuscany’ or ‘Provence’ on it doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good or bad.

And “Made In France” means something different than “Product of France“. “Made In…” means the oil is actually made in that country with olives that are supposed to be grown and pressed there.

“Product of France” means the olive oil was bottled there, but could be made from olives from North African that were shipped to Hungary then transported to France for bottling. It’s not that that’s necessarily bad, but some countries have different pesticide and labeling standards and it’s nice to be up-front about those kind of things with consumers so we know what they’re getting.

6. Spend more, get more.

Sure you can buy toothpaste from China for 99 cents vs Crest for $3. But some of the Chinese stuff has anti-freeze in it and the Crest (presumably) doesn’t. Price does not necessarily equal quality and it’s okay to be frugal so you don’t need to break the bank. There’s many olive oils that cost less than $10 per bottle that will last you months, although I’m happy to spend a bit more.

It’s your temple—feed it well.

7. Use olive oil while it’s still in its prime.

Good extra-virgin olive oil will last about a year if stored properly. As my friend Judy told me, cheap olive oils are often already rancid when you open them since they’re mechanically-harvested, which bruises the fruits. Then they’re allowed to sit for a few days before pressing, which increases the chance and speed of spoilage. I always taste a bottle of oil when I open it before using.

8. Organize your own tasting!

In spite of what I, or anyone else says, only you know what you like and what price you feel comfortable paying for a bottle. While some folks find paying more than $10 for a bottle of olive oil outrageous, they think nothing of spending many times that on a bottle of wine, which normally doesn’t last as long.

Check your local markets and taste what available. Buy various oils and taste them with friends. Read up and learn what makes a good olive oil worth it, and you’ll get much more appreciation every time you drizzle some of that fragrant, smooth oil from the bottle.

Related Links & Posts, and Places to Find Good Olive Oil

Olive Picking in Provence (My experience picking olives in France)

Olives: The Life and Lore of the Noble Fruit by Mort Rosenblum is a great read on olive oil.

Sotaroni: My favorite arbequinia olive oil from Catalonia.

Colavita: Guarantees their olive oil to be 100% Italian.

Olive Oil: From Tree to Table by Peggy Knickerbocker is full of recipes and olive lore.

The Spanish Table: Spanish Olive Oils

McEvoy Ranch: Organic California Olive Oil

Rare Wine Co: Offers rare Tuscan olive oils (via Sara).

Corsican Olive Oil: Recommended by Pim.

La Tienda: Spanish Olive Oils

Corti Brothers: Daryl Corti searches the world to find the best and rarest of oils.

Zingerman’s: A great selection of olive oils with loads of excellent information.


41 comments

  • Did you read the recent New Yorker article about international olive oil scams, in which major manufacturers have been selling olive oil adulterated with sunflower oil and lampante oil (olive oil so bad it should only be used in oil lamps)?

    From now on, I’m always taking a whiff and a taste of any olive oil before I use it!

  • Sadly, I do not know of a place that has olive oil tasting near me. I’ve just been buying ones that are mid-priced in hopes they are good. I’m off to move my olive oil that is on the shelf above the stove probably enjoying some nice morning sun right now… Thanks for the great tips!

  • Hi Tisha: Yes, I did see that, and linked to it in the comments of my Marinated Feta post. That and some of the things I learned from Mort’s book, prompted this post. (Apparently Colavita is one that’s guaranteed pure Italian olive oil. Their link is above.)

    There used to be an olive oil store just downstairs from me, which unfortunately closed last year; I actually started crying when she told me she was closing up. Really!

  • David,

    Thank you for this great article. I love amassing list of food vendors. Your blog is the best of the lot!

  • Very interesting article.

    I love a good olive oil but growing up in Britain in the ’70s we never saw it. It’s only in the last 15 – 20 years that it’s become available everywhere there. My mother tells me that, back in the day, the only time she used olive oil was from little bottles that she got from pharmacies as recommended for certain dermatological problems. The bottles were marked “for external use only”

  • I completely agree, especially about the country of origin bit. There’s great olive oil from Morocco, Lebanon, Spain, Greece, etc.

    There’s a place in New York, Fig and Olive, that’s part store part restaurant and does an olive oil tasting as their appetizer. It’s always amazing, and I love the extremely green olive oils, grassy, fruity, sweet or tart.
    And you’re right, they’re great with chocolate.

  • Ummm…this may sound like a crazy question, but if heat destroys olive oil, then what happens to the oil when you use it to saute garlic, etc? :0l

  • Mlle Smoth: Heat destroys some of the flavors in olive oil, which is why it’s best not to use a not-so expensive oil for cooking. Many cooks, like me, keep a few olive oils on hand of various qualities and prices.

    Mercedes: Yes, chocolate and olive oil are amazing together…with a few grains of good sea salt, like fleur de sel or Maldon. Yum!

    Joseph: Thanks! Zingerman’s is a great resource and their site is filled with lots of information about what they offer.

  • One of the best things about London markets is that the olive oil merchants have all their different types available for tasting!
    Yum!

    B

  • I’m lucky. I work for a company that wholesales olive oil and so get to taste quite a lot. I have tasted truly awful ‘high quality’ Italian Extra Virgin as well as excellent Spanish pomace oil. We also import and bottle our own Cretan oil.

    I don’t think I have ever tried a truly great oil. Though I did try some Australian olive oil recently. It was pretty tasteless.

  • Loving this post! I also love to flavor my own oils. Putting a vanilla bean and a clove of crushed garlic in a small amount and letting it sit for a week, then use it to pan sear shrimp. It’s fabulous.

  • David,
    Loving your blog, but how can we mere mortals keep up with you, Dorie, Clotilde, Rose Levy, etc. So much to learn, read, cook and oh yes, EAT. We look forward to our visit to Paree next week until the 27 to the Marais and will look for you at le Marche d’ Aligre. We were glad to aquire a reservation @ Spring during our stay.
    BTW, ignore the naysayers and throw in ‘Bush digs’ freely. You know they are never shy about digging at we ‘Dems’.
    A bientôt,
    kyle

  • wow…great, that is what I want

  • I would SO love to taste olive oils beforehand! Part of the problem, at least in the States, is that price ISN’T always an indication of quality but of branding. And so I stand at the shelf, stymied, wanting to RUN from all the choices and tempted to reach for the Crisco Oil whose taste, none, is known. And then I pick the plainest bottle (where I may actually be falling for minimalist branding).

  • One more tip, related to your ‘use olive oil in its prime’ advice: look for the vintage of the oil on the label or cap. I’ve found a great many shops charging premium prices for oil that’s two years old. Not enough producers are willing to put the date of harvest on the label, and personally I avoid those that don’t. Rare Wine Co. offers excellent oils that are always fresh, but only in Spring when the oils first come into the country.

  • I’m a bit skeptical about the condensation ruining the olive oil in the fridge. I guess the obvious experiment is to add some distilled water to some oil, close it up and see if it spoils faster than a control.

  • These are great tips. I am going to move my oils from near the stove and put them in a cabinet when I get back to L.A.

    Should I move my balsalmic vinegar as well?

  • kyle: Have fun at Spring. Head up there early and explore the rue des Martyrs. There’s a few great food places up there.

    Cheinan: That’s what they told me about refrigeration and condensation at Huilerie LeBlanc here in Paris and at McEvoy in California. It would be an interesting experiment to test out. If you do, let us know!

    ny/caribbean: Yes, get those oils off the stove (and the pepper too (heat makes it bitter). If it’s not aged balsamic vinegar (12+ years) I don’t think it’s as critical as the oil.

    Steve: Good point!

    Alanna: Some of the brands I mentioned above (Puget and Colavita…and Sasso from Italy is good and not expensive) are reliably good, in my opinion. Buying locally is great if you can taste or get a good opinion, but all of the mail-order places I recommended shouldn’t steer you wrong. Zingerman’s is great; there’s plenty of good oils that aren’t outrageously expensive out there. You just gotta find ‘em.

    Garrett: Sounds interesting but be careful about putting garlic in olive oil and steeping it. It can cause botulism to foster. There’s a link in the Marinated Feta post about it. I don’t want anything to happen to you!

  • being the olive oil addict that i am, i buy bottles wherever i go and sadly have discovered that i just can’t use them up… they keep forever, but are only good in their 1st year after bottling, after that you can still use them, but tastewise it’s all downhill from there! sadly, very few bottles come with an indication of when the olives were harvested and the oil bottled and i have had bad experiences of ordering an oil i know i love online only to get an bottle that was 2 years old! 30 euros down the drain!
    I always have two or three (small) bottles on the go and thoose i keep on the counter in a relatively dark spot, as i know i am doing to use them over the next few weeks. the rest i store in the wine fridge. all the open ones will have a specific taste, one will be mild and mellow, another grassy and temperamental, so i use them for different purposes.
    i couldn’t agree more on the taste: i used to be an oil snob, snubbing everything that wasn’t some first pressing in a mill in provence, but a great shop (french owner) in vienna has opened my eyes… after having me taste about 15 oils in one sitting, he now knows my taste and always recommends good new finds. i have just discovered a portuguese one which has a distinct hint of exotic fruit and is as mild (and therefore versatile) as i like it. anyone in vienna or planning to go there, i am happy to share the details…

  • What an interesting post. Thank you for the tips. Couldn’t agree more with having two qualities of oil. I always wince when I see someone using a really good oil for regular frying – such a waste as all the glorious flavour is destroyed!

    I’m interested in the comment about how well olive oil goes with chocolate and sea salt. This may sound like a strange question, but how do you eat the combination exactly – do you mean ‘pieces’ of chocolate, or in cooking, somehow?

  • Antonia: Chocolate mousse or chocolate ice cream (or sorbet) are both great drizzled with a bit of fruity olive oil and a few grains of good, crackly sea salt. But try a few drips on a square of bittersweet chocolate…it’s a great combination!

    (And check out Melissa’s Olive Oil Brownies too.)

  • I JUST came back from Croatia and I had this totally delicious, super-grassy oil there, I believe it was “Ipsa”. Anyway, it was totally amazing.

  • I have to say that this is probably the most useful post I’ve read in a long long time.
    I love it!

    Thank you so much for the information!

  • A quick tip for your NYC readers – Fairway up at 131st Street always has 10 bottles of oil open with bread for tasting. It’s a free way to get a handle on the whole olive oil thing – and their prices are great. They have good turnover too, so you are pretty sure you are getting a fresh bottle.

    N.

  • I teach olive oil tasting classes in Austin and am delighted by the variety of oils available to us.
    One interesting aside: when I was in Australia a few years ago, I attended an olive oil blending session. We were told that there is now some interest in “aging” olive oil. Some grower/producers have been playing with the concept of allowing olive oil to age without becoming rancid, and are interested in how the flavor profiles develop.

    One Australian oil that I enjoy is called “OLIO”. The green and fruity one is quite nice amd retails for around $11 for 750 ml.

  • How, precisely, does one “taste” olive oil? I picture an array of dishes and a big loaf of bread…

  • About storing olive oil in the refrigerator…I think the main reason not to do so is that olive oil becomes a solid at refrigeration temperatures, rendering it more difficult to use. It shouldn’t have anything to do with “condensation”, which (as any junior high science class will tell you) occurs on the OUTSIDE of containers. Unless your olive oil is kept in something more permeable than glass or metal, condensation won’t “dilute” it.

  • Maybe you shouldn’t perpetuate the stereotype that all Chinese products are cheap and use bad materials.

  • Mari: Yes, you’re right. Which is why I singled out only some Chinese toothpaste, which contained toxic diethylene glycol, rather than all Chinese products. I worked for several years in a Chinese and Southeast Asian restaurant and buy Chinese products: In fact, I spent Friday afternoon filling a shopping cart at Tang Frères here in Paris full of them.

    (I did pass on the toothpaste, though…)

    You’ll note I also mentioned there was labeling fraud in both Spain and France as well, but I hope people don’t get the impression that I’m down on all products from France or Italy either.

    It’s just a word of caution that in general, you get what you pay for. And you don’t always know what you’re getting unless you buy from a reliable source.

  • I run a little blog about olive oil and I’ve been lucky enough to have developed the pleasant hobby of tasting a lot of different oils from different countries. Heck — I would argue that if you love to cook, you might wish to consider having closer to four or five olive oils on hand.

    You want one or two flavored oils (i.e. a Blood Orange and a Meyer Lemon, for making flavorful marinades for fish and for whipping up salad dressings.) Then you want to cover the range on your palette, from the buttery smooth oil, to the nutty and/or grassy-herby oil, to the peppery-spicy oil that sticks in the back of your throat and makes you cough.

    You’ll start to find different uses for the oils, because each day — if you’re like me — you’re craving a slightly different taste experience. And olive oil is the basic flavor that can help modify that experience, even in subtle ways. So, buy a bunch — but David gives perhaps the best advice of all: taste first, if you can!

    Costas (www.iloveoliveoilblog.com)

  • Great discussion. I’m a big fan of Italian Extra Virgin Olive Oil and get to work with it daily. If you don’t have a store with tastings, look for a food show near you. We are participating in two shows soon in the DC area and will be offering tastings. There are significant flavorful differences among olive oils from different varieties and regions/microclimates. You get what you pay for and you need to find a reliable, trustworthy source. Take a look at Olio2go.

    Our upcoming tastings will be held at the National Italian America Foundation’s
    Piazza d’Italia October 12-13 at the Washington Hilton and at the
    Metro Cooking & Entertaining Show at the DC Convention Center on November 3-4.

    Take a look also at Squidoo for another look at olive oil.

  • Is it ok to store the oil in the cabinet that is to the right (or left) of the stove, not above it? And I also keep some in my corner cabinet that has a whole row of drawers between it and the stove, so I guess that’d be ok.

    I’ve been buying my olive oil (and balsamic) at Costco and I’ve thought they were both ok. My mom brought me back some California olive oil when she went to visit her sister and they did a tour down the coast. That was the best oil, and to this day I still dream of having it again. Unfortunately she doesn’t remember the producer and I don’t have the bottle anymore (my aunt has returned back to the East Coast too).

    One day I’ll find a really nice and peppery olive oil once more.

  • JJ: The main enemies of olive oil are heat and light. So if the cabinet isn’t warm, from the stove, it should be fine.

  • Great Blog! We have a local grower in Temecula California (Temecula Olive Oil Company)that has a nice tasting bar and they encourage you to taste their oils before you buy. What an education,they talk you about the harvest and their mill and press. Tremendous! And great oils. Check them out if you havent tasted them. Keep up the great work!

  • Thanks for your tips on olive oil, David. Your comments about “made in France” vs. “Produce of France” are especially pertinent, I think, given the huge problem with fraudulent olive oil. I’ve been thinking about buying only California olive oil because of this problem, and given that I live in Oregon, it has a lower carbon footprint, too. But I suspect that even California olive oil isn’t guaranteed to be unadulterated.

    —Theory

  • Thanks for all the helpful info and overall scrumptious blog !!! I am almost done with your enjoyable book and cannot wait for my next visit to Paris. It seems I can never be away from Paris for more than a few years. Do you have any suggestions/tips on how to host an olive oil tasting at home? Thanks !

  • Hi Frances: The best thing to do is get a variety of oils from different countries. When I do a tasting of anything, I like to throw in a poor example of something so that people can see the difference: people who taste regular table salt after tasting flaky sea salt vow never to eat granulated table salt again.

    Provide white bread pieces of eating. Another thing that’s nice to do is make sure everyone smells the oils first. I’ve been to “tastings” where we actually didn’t taste the oil…we just smelled them!

  • This such a great and helpful post! I usually don’t even comment on blogs, but I just really felt I had to say thanks. So thanks!

  • Great article and useful tips. I found a very good resource at http:www.oliveoilemporium.com
    A wide selection of premium olive oils too!

  • Hi David! Thanks for this article and all your generosity in sharing your wisdom with us. I know this is an old post, but I was wondering… I have an Algerian friend here in Brooklyn who often cooks for me and she badly misses the olive oil that they would make at home from their own trees (200 liters a year!). I’d like to get her a bottle of nice olive oil that might come close in character, but apparently they don’t import Algerian olive oil to here and I’ve never tasted it. This might be an impossible question to answer, but any idea what might be a suitable stand-in? Something from Southern Spain (Andalucia) maybe, with a strong olive flavor?

  • Tara: I don’t know about Algerian olive oil so can’t suggest a substitute. Perhaps try a place in New York like Kalustyans, which is a good resource for specialty foods. Good luck!