Before there were superfoods, there was olive oil. (Just ask Odysseus, who also swore by it for skincare.) Three thousand years later, olive oil is one of the ingredients cooks reach for most often—the first and last thing used in making some of the world’s greatest meals. A drizzle can elevate a simple vegetable to star status, and a few cups will transform chicken into something luxuriously tender. It can also be incredibly confusing. The green liquid in the $30 bottle looks just like the $5 option, and the media fearmongering about olive oil fraud is enough to make you swear off the supermarket stuff entirely (or cook only with butter). That would be a shame, though, because olive oil—extra-virgin, that is—is the culinary equivalent of liquid gold. Time to get (re)acquainted with the most loved, least understood ingredient in your kitchen.
Know How to Read a Label
The first thing to learn is the difference between marketing jargon and real-deal info. These are all the markers you’ll find on a bottle of Frankies 475 Spuntino Extra Virgin Olive Oil (which comes from the Manhattan and Brooklyn restaurants, but can now be found in grocery stores and on Amazon for $35).
Extra-virgin is the highest standard for olive oil, regulated by various organizations, including the International Olive Oil Council. To be labeled EVOO, the oil should have no defects and must be unrefined, meaning it has never been treated with chemicals or heat. Virgin is next in the pecking order: It’s also unrefined but can have defects. Quality and price can range within the EVOO standard, but “extra virgin” is as close a guarantee as you can get, so use it for both cooking and drizzling.
First Cold Press
This phrase doesn’t mean much. Historically, oil was extracted using stone mills and presses; after the first press, the remnants were made into lower grades of oil by applying heat. Now most oil is extracted by press and centrifuge, and extra-virgin oil is by definition “cold.” If the oil is truly extra-virgin, “cold press” is just redundant.
Nocellara del Belice
There are hundreds of varieties of olives, and, like grapes for wine, each lends a distinct flavor, such as buttery Arbequina (try the California Olive Ranch, starting at $20 on Amazon) or this fruity oil, made from Nocellara del Belice olives in Sicily.
Oils must be labeled with their source, but read the fine print. An oil that calls itself a “Product of Italy” or “Bottled in Italy” can still come from elsewhere—and probably does. On the back label, you can often find the initials of the true country of origin: IT for Italy, TN for Tunisia, PT for Portugal, GR for Greece, etc. The best oils will note a single origin, like the Frankies tin from Sicily, sometimes down to a specific farm. [LINK AGAIN]
Look for opaque tins or dark glass bottles that block out light, which makes oil spoil faster. Also, the idea that color matters is a myth. Whether yellow or green, it’s not a marker of quality, so the fact that you can’t tell the exact shade in a darker bottle is no problem.
Some bottles are labeled “filtered” or “unfiltered,” and which one you want is up for debate. To many, unfiltered oil, which is often cloudier, is rawer, more pure, closer to what this living natural product should be. To others, filtered is a superior, cleaner, longer-lasting product. Ultimately, it’s a matter of taste. But know that the sediments in unfiltered oils make the product more volatile, meaning it can have a shorter shelf life. Avoid “pure” or “light” olive oil, marketing misnomers for oil that is neither “pure” nor “dietetic” (it’s 100 percent fat, people) but that has been refined using heat and chemicals to strip away all odor and flavor. You may as well be using canola.
Find One You Love
Ideally you want to use one bottle for both cooking and finishing—which kind that is comes down to personal preference: Do you like a strong, peppery oil or a mild, grassy one? Here’s how to best show off each style.
Grassy and Fruity
Perfect for pesto, grassy oils pair well with chicken and are even delicious on chocolate or vanilla ice cream. Drizzle it on fresh fruit or delicate fish. Try it: Gaea Fresh Extra Virgin Olive Oil ($20 on Walmart.com).
Pungent and Peppery
Intensely spicy and borderline bitter oil stands up well to fattier meats like beef and pork, as well as heartier greens like kale. Its robust flavor equally complements heirloom tomatoes and roasted root vegetables. Try it: Lucini Premium Select Extra Virgin Olive Oil ($19 on Amazon).
Use It or Lose It
Like iPhones and pop-culture references, olive oil does not get better with age, so once opened, use it ASAP, ideally no later than two months. (Unopened olive oil is good for about two years after the harvest date.) Don’t store it near the stove or in a chic glass decanter. Heat, air, light, and time (H.A.L.T., as the pros say) will make your oil go rancid, so keep it in the cupboard and use it with abandon.
There are those times when a measly 750-ml bottle of EVOO just won’t cut it. Thanksgiving is one of those times. Here’s a good resource to know about: At Olive Oil Lovers you can find hundreds of varieties of super-high-quality extra-virgin olive oil, and while you can buy in any quantity, the best deals are the three-, four-, and five-liter tins of grassy-green goodness, all from trusted farms.
Find Your Workhorse
Twenty-ish bucks too steep for everyday oil? We hear you. The BA Test Kitchen editors sniffed, swirled, and slurped 20-plus supermarket brands in search of value. The clear winner for its enjoyable peppery burn and budget-friendly price? Trader Joe’s Premium Greek Kalamata Extra Virgin Olive Oil ($9 in stores).