About a decade ago, extra virgin olive oil — EVOO for purposes of this article — experienced what some have termed a renaissance in America. Seemingly overnight, one couldn’t pick up a newspaper, magazine, or remote control without hearing about how this “wonder food” could help us combat aging and carcinogens, and keep our hearts thumping along healthily. But this boom brought with it a bust.
A shelf of oils at the market turned into half an aisle, nearly all of which contained different olive oils, often in plastic jugs or clear glass bottles. The consumer was abandoned to wade through this deluge of product on their own with sometimes no idea of what to select. Now, with a mature olive oil market before us, let me share some tips and suggestions to transform you, the reader, into a more informed olive oil consumer.
It is important to note that the US public has been surveyed extensively by the UC Davis Olive Oil Sensory Evaluation Board — the first and arguably most respected authority on EVOO in the country — in regard to what they look for when choosing EVOO. Its findings showed that Americans have actually become accustomed to the taste of rancid oil. Wow, so now how can we recognize this specific inferior taste and avoid it in our own households?
Rancidity is common
Rancid is defined as “smelling or tasting unpleasant as a result of being old and stale.” That is not much help in this instance, however, since when EVOO becomes rancid it is nearly odorless, and possesses a taste that most of us are rather used to, a taste which can perhaps best be described as a bit metallic, greasy, and what some call deoxygenated. In other words, it basically tastes like funky canola oil. In some cases, what you think is EVOO — and what is even labeled as EVOO — may actually be canola oil with dye and scent added, as discovered when the UC Davis Board performed chemical testing of several widely used imported brands.
Quality, non-rancid EVOO will taste and smell grassy and a bit peppery. It will be pungent, and tickle the throat a little when being enjoyed. For many, it may very well be foreign to their palate, as they might have never actually had true, fresh, good olive oil.
So how does one avoid buying rancid oil? First and foremost, proper storage is key. Only buy products that are packaged in dark glass bottles or metal tins. Light of any type, even fluorescent, will ruin EVOO within a mere 48 hours, meaning every clear plastic or glass bottle that you see on the shelves has already greatly deteriorated in terms of quality. To prevent EVOO from turning rancid once you buy it, keep it in a cool, dark place. Store it at “the furthest point from stove and ceiling.” Why does this matter? Because like beer, light will break down flavor compounds, but in EVOO, light will also break down those heart-healthy compounds that contribute to its being so sought after. With this tip you will likely be able to exclude at least 80 percent of the brands available at your local store and will be on your way to purchasing and enjoying better oil.
Where’s that oil coming from?
Country of origin can also be an important factor when making a selection, but keep in mind that despite the perception that Italian oils are somehow better than others, any country with a compatible climate for olives can cultivate them and produce delicious EVOO. This is important to realize, because although most mass-produced brands of EVOO depict Italian villas and names on their bottles, many are only packed in Italy.
It is very curious that people perceive Italy as being responsible for most of the world’s production of extremely vast quantities of EVOO, even though the entire country could fit into Texas more than 2.25 times (116,305 square feet versus 266,807 square feet)! Italy’s small size does not even allow the possibility of sufficient olive groves to meet the world’s voracious demand for EVOO. So, besides Italy, other popular countries of origin include Greece, Spain, Tunisia, Turkey, Morocco, Argentina, Chile and the US. Yes, the US.
Reputable manufacturers will not only list the country of origin and specify whether the oil was packed in Italy or not, but will also have some sort of certification. Examples of legitimate certification agencies are the Authorization Sereni de Salud Region de O’Higgins in Chile, the CQSA and Bioagricert in Europe, and the California Olive Oil Council in the US. Although less common in this country, all trustworthy European brands will at least have some form of certification attesting to the product’s authenticity.
Milling is important, too
The final marker of quality one can look for without actually tasting the oil is the mill date and mill location. These will be the least commonly listed pieces of information and oftentimes denote higher quality brands. For the freshest EVOO, the olives should have been milled the previous November/December if milled in the Northern Hemisphere, or June/July if milled in the Southern Hemisphere.
With these parameters in mind, I would recommend purchasing a bottle from California Olive Ranch. This particular brand was available at every chain grocery store I visited in the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area, the lowest price being found at Wegmans Food Market: $7.49 for a 16.9 fl. oz. (500mL) bottle. Their basic EVOO is a good springboard for future tastings and comparisons, as it has what I and several testers feel are mild indications of what an excellent EVOO can be, without breaking the bank. Although less widely stocked, California Olive Ranch also offers a Gold Medal Series that costs $2 to $3 more, but is some of the best you are likely to find locally. It is very flavorful, with definite hints of olive/grassy tastes and a peppery tone, and has only the slightest texture of greasiness compared to its competitors.
You are likely to notice other brands which meet these guidelines at your favorite grocer. However, many of them are currently exclusive to only one or two retail chains, thus were not considered for this column. For more information regarding olive oil and the industry surrounding it, I suggest reading the book Extra Virginity by Tom Mueller.