When I was first learning how to cook, Chez Panisse held a contest, open to all employees, seeking a better (tastier? more clever? more original?) tomato sauce recipe (using canned tomatoes) for use through the winter months. There weren't many rules beyond this: we were to use only ingredients that were readily available in the CP kitchen (i.e. local, seasonal and organic).
Having only just started to cook, I was too intimidated to enter myself and felt like I had too little authority to even try, but it felt like pretty much everyone else, from bussers and wine runners to porters and, of course, cooks, submitted a recipe. The prize was $500 and having your name on the menu every time the sauce was featured, so people got really into it, as you might be able to imagine.
Entrants were instructed to bring in their sauces for a blind tasting on a weekday afternoon, and a team of impartial judges (a.k.a. the chefs and Alice) set about the arduous task of trying the veritable panoply of sauces. Some had seasoned their sauces with dried oregano, others fresh marjoram. Some crushed their canned tomatoes by hand while others painstakingly seeded and diced them. Others added chili flake while still yet others channeled their inner nonnas and pureed their sauces, pomorola-style. It was tomato mayhem, and in the kitchen we were all atwitter, waiting to hear who the finalists were.
At one point, Russ came back into the kitchen to get a glass of water, and I'll never forget what he said when we asked him how things were going:
"There are a lot of great entries. So many, in fact, that it's hard to narrow them down. But it's a shame that some of the particularly good recipes were made with bad olive oil."
What they couldn't understand, and understandably so, was why all of the employees wouldn't have cooked with good olive oil, especially when it was always available to us to buy at cost through the restaurant.
While some of the chefs were able to imagine cooking a sauce made with bad olive oil with better ingredients at the restaurant, Alice, he said, in particular, couldn't get past it, because her palate was so sensitive. She couldn't separate the "what is" from the "what might be."
Never before had it occurred to me that olive oil, or any oil--the cooking medium itself--would have much effect on the flavor of a dish. This was my first glimpse of understanding that not only did it have an effect, but that as the foundational ingredient, the flavor of olive oil pervades every single molecule of a dish.
So, in the same way that an onion cooked in butter tastes different than an onion cooked in olive oil, an onion cooked in good olive oil tastes different (and in this case, better) than one cooked in a lesser quality oil.
So, before considering even one of the many political/health/outside reasons for using a better olive oil in your cooking, know that the way your olive oil tastes is directly related to how your food will taste.
Choosing an olive oil can be a daunting task. Just at my local food market, there are probably four dozen different brands of extra virgin olive oil on display. Then, there are all of the virgin and pure oils. If I hadn't had the good fortune of living in Italy, where I got to familiarize myself with some of the most talented oil producers throughout the country, I'd probably have adverse reactions to olive oil shopping, traceable back to the levels of stress they'd cause in my body. I mean, virgin or extra virgin? Italy or France? Organic or not? Is that olive oil on sale any good? Why is some olive oil $30 for 750ml while another is $10 for a liter? What is going on? And how can you tell the difference?
I get it. I mean, I usually know what I'm looking for and I still get an accelerated heartbeat every time I enter that aisle at Berkeley Bowl. Sheesh.
It's why when Jen asked me to help her learn how to choose an oil, I figured there must be more folks out there wanting to know the same information, and I took the opportunity to dive headlong into answering the age-old question of how to know what olive oil to buy.
How to Choose an Olive Oil
Taste. Taste. Taste.
Taste, not price, is your best guide in choosing an olive oil. This might require a leap of faith on your part if you don't know what you're tasting for. All of those words, like fruity, pungent, spicy and bright might seem confounding if you've never considered that olive oil can taste like much of anything besides, well, oil, but it's true, a good olive oil has multiple dimensions. The only way to familiarize yourself with them is by tasting, and paying attention to what you sense. If you taste something expensive and don't like it, then it's not for you. If you find a ten dollar bottle that's delicious, then you've scored! In this way, olive oil shopping is much like wine shopping.
Before you bother with anything else, taste and trust yourself. You have to taste, and ultimately, you have to let your own taste buds be the judge, because food is alive, and ever-changing, and inconsistent, and magical, and even an olive oil that I or another cook may rant or rave about is different from bottle to bottle, batch to batch.
I will say, though, that while it's harder for me to tell you what a "good" oil might taste like, it's fairly simple for me to describe a "bad" one. There are several main reasons why I won't buy an olive oil, including: bitterness (to the point that I'm coughing or gagging), overwhelming spiciness, a "dirty" or "smelly" flavor, and rancidity. These are all deal-breakers. There's a place in my pantry for almost all other flavor-manifestations of olive oil.
Once you are comfortable with a brand and you are confident that you know what a "good" oil tastes like, then hopefully you'll feel empowered to take a risk and try a different oil, and over time you can familiarize yourself with the characteristics of different oils and different regions. I've found that coastal olives produce milder, sweeter oils (like that Ligurian one below), and oils from the Tuscan hills are peppery, bright, and powerful. But even within a region, oil can differ widely, so again, we return to the ultimate arbiter to help us judge: the palate.
Ay, there's the rub.
How can you taste an olive oil before you spend twenty bucks on a bottle?
Well, you can't. So sometimes you have to take a blind leap. Some markets might host tastings or let you try a product before purchasing. Other markets will let you return items if you're not pleased with them. And finally, by all means, before spending big bucks on a bulk tin of oil, buy a small bottle to experiment with. If you don't go through olive oil quite as quickly as I might, it might be smarter to buy it in smaller amounts anyway (or to split a larger bottle or tin with a friend or two) so that you can use up the oil before it goes rancid.
For olive oil, unfortunately, the term "organic" is practically meaningless, since international regulation of organic standards is totally irregular. Unless an olive oil is coming from an organic farmer or producer who you are already familiar with, don't let this be an indicator of whether or not to buy (though I will say that the organic Costco oil is tastier than the regular, and when buying oil from a producer of that size, I'd prefer something to nothing in terms of regulation). Instead of "organic," there are a few other things to look for on the label of a bottle of olive oil that may suggest higher quality, including:
- A harvest date. Olive oil is good for about a year--fourteen months max--before it goes rancid. If you're spending thirty bucks on a bottle of oil, make sure it's from the current press. Olives are pressed in November, sometimes December, so the current press right now is 2011. The harvest date is not the same as the "use by" or "sell by" date, so take a careful look.
- A dark green glass bottle or a stainless steel tin. Keeping olive oil out of direct sunlight, and purchasing olive oil that has been kept out of direct sunlight are of utmost importance since the light accelerates loss of nuanced flavor and leads to rancidity.
- A DOP seal for European oils or a California Olive Oil Council (COOC) seal for California Oils. A DOP is a Protected Denomination of Origin, which is a type of government-regulated quality control that actually means something. Other examples of DOP (sometimes called AOC, DOC, DOCG, etc.) foods throughout Europe that you may be familiar with are Parmigiano-Reggiano, Chianti Classico, Jamón Serrano, and Prosciutto di Parma. The California Olive Oil Council is a trade association with certified olive oil standards meant to help raise the quality of California oils on the shelves, promote producers, and protect customers.
- A specific producer name and location. Though the location can be hard to recognize if you're not a pro at reading Italian addresses and deciphering all of the insane two letter abbreviations (FI = Firenze, SI= Siena, etc.), it's worth it to try, and to at least be sure that the oil is made in a particular place in Italy (or Spain, or France). As Tom Mueller writes, "Made in Italy" is not the same thing as "Product of Italy." Most of the big olive oil brands, like Bertolli and Filippo Berio have admitted to buying olives from other countries (such as Tunisia, Greece, or Spain), importing them into Italy, and pressing the oil there only to sell it as "Made in Italy." Though there isn't anything innately wrong with olives grown in any of those countries, since the fruit is picked and then transported over such great distances, it's safe to say that it's not at its peak when being pressed into oil (and imagine the fermentation happening on the bottom of those truckloads of olives!). Most of the small olive oil producers, like Capezzana, who I visited when I lived in Italy had their own frantoios (or olive mills) on the premises, so that olives could be pressed within hours of picking. Something like only four percent of olive oil exported from Italy is a made exclusively of Italian olives, so look for the name of the producer, the location, and/or the words "Product of Italy" to ensure you're getting the real thing.
Things that aren't a necessarily indicator of quality:
- Color of the olive oil. Light oils can be delicious. Dark, green oils can be gross. And vice versa. Color, in and of iteself, doesn't matter, so don't make a decision based on it.
- Unfiltered vs. filtered. Unfiltered olive oil is simply...unfiltered. Not better, not worse, just unfiltered.
- Single-varietals vs. blends. As with wine, a blend can be truly delicious. Just because an oil is made of a single cultivar of olive doesn't make it "better" in any way, so don't fall for that. Let taste be your guide.
What to do with it after you bring it home:
- Keep your oil out of direct sunlight. And don't store it above or too close to your stove, as temperature fluctuations will negatively affect flavor and encourage oxidation, which leads to rancidity.
Glossary of terms
Extra-virgin--this is the highest quality (and usually most expensive) oil derived from olives. Extra-virgin is always made by pressing raw olives soon after they are harvested. It's low in acid, and often offers the widest range of flavors, so it's best used unadulterated, in things like salads and condiments, since heating it up will change its chemical makeup and diminish its delicate flavors.
Virgin--this is also a high-quality oil, which is produced by the same exact methods as extra virgin. The only difference is that it tests at a higher acidity level so it cannot technically be called extra virgin. Virgin oils are also good for salad dressings, mayonnaises, condiments and light cooking.
(Pure) Olive oil--When a label reads "pure olive oil," or simply "olive oil," it usually means that the bottle consists mostly of refined oil, which has been treated with heat and/or chemicals to balance out the flaws and neutralize flavors, with a small percentage of virgin or extra virgin oil added back in for flavor. It's usually pretty light in color. Since it doesn't have much going on, flavor-wise, this oil is great for browning meats for braises and making anything long-cooked. I also sometimes use it as a base for mayonnaise and then go back and add good oil to finish. It's a great, affordable, neutral cooking oil.
Extra light olive oil--Similar to pure, but without any good oil added back in for flavor. This means that this oil is totally refined and basically void of any of the characteristics that make olive oil olive oil. It's not bad, just not really anything special. Would be good for browning meats for braises or slow-roasted anything. The "extra light" doesn't denote that it has any less caloric value--it's just as fattening as regular old olive oil.
Cold pressed--the olives and oil were not heated above a certain point during processing, resulting in an oil with more integrity of flavor and nutrients.
First pressed--the oil is the product of the first press of the olives. Sometimes olives are pressed a second time, and the resultant oil is of lesser quality (a second press will usually yield "pure" or "extra light" oil).
What & Where to Buy
What I use at home:
I'm always changing things up, based on availability, curiosity, the current state of my finances, and of course whim. But the one constant is taste--I won't buy crappy olive oil. These are all great olive oils that I rotate through the kitchen. I usually have a few on hand, but for most home cooks who don't toe the line of insanity like I do, one cooking oil and one fancy oil are enough.
Take a look at these oils, and if one seems to catch your interest, familiarize yourself with its label and maybe you'll find it on the shelf of your local natural or specialty foods store. If you trust me and my taste buds, spend the money, buy the oil, and bring it home to taste and cook with.
Where to buy olive oil:
Many of these olive oil producers sell to distributors who import throughout the US, so most of these are going to be somewhat easy to find in a shop like Bi-Rite, The Pasta Shop, Dean & Deluca, or Zingermans. In the Bay Area, local grocery stores like Rainbow, Berkeley Bowl, and Monterey Market have great selections of olive oil, as does Genova Delicatessen.
Even though I've noticed that Whole Foods has a huge selection of high quality olive oils, I wouldn't buy fancy oil there unless pressed to, because I think most of those bottles just sit on the shelves for a really long time, aging and creeping ever-closer to rancidity, which is inevitable in olive oil around the 14 month mark. Since you're paying a premium for good oil, it's worth it to make sure you're buying from a retailer with quick turnover.
I have my own issues with and try not to shop at Trader Joe's because of their lack of transparency, and their behavior throughout the whole Immokalee situation (even though I suppose it's technically been resolved), but I totally get that for a lot of people it's the best or only option, or that they just plain like it. The thing is, since most everything is a house brand there, there's no way of knowing what you're getting, really, until you buy it and taste. But since things are pretty affordable there, it's an easy way to put your taste buds to the test.
Olive Oils I Use & Love
- Katz: Chef's pick is a fantastic deal and well-balanced. I usually have a bottle of this around for both cooking and salads.
- McEvoy Ranch
- Yolo Press
- O Olive Oil
San Giuliano Oils: Affordable and relatively mild, these oils have been the mainstay cooking oils in my kitchen for the past few years. I like their pure and their extra virgin, as well as the delicious Cannonau red wine vinegar. I use the neutral pure oil for browning roasts, all-purpose, and things like mayonnaise base that I then finish with better, more full-bodied oils.
- Mastri di San Basilio: I particularly like Due Sicilie and usually have a bottle of this soft-spoken, yet delicious oil on hand for salad dressings and salsas where I don't want the oil to have too much personality.
- Olio Verde: one word--delicious
- Stephen Singer Olio: This is the oil that has been at the base of CP cooking for decades, though now there is a lot of California oil in that kitchen as well. My favorites here are the San Giusto and the flagship oil.
- Badia a Coltibuono
- Tenuta di Capezzana
- Frantoio di Sommaia
- Laudemio Frescobaldi
- Tiger Brand: This is a pure olive oil I LOVE to use for cooking because it's so neutral and affordable.
Francesco de Padova: The 5 Liter tin is a STEAL! Howard Case has had a relationship with these Pugliese producers for years, and imports these oils and sells them himself, keeping costs relatively low. I really like these oils--the pure is great for cooking and the extra virgin is a wonderful all-purpose oil.
Costa dei Rosmarini: I went through a seriously obsessive phase with this olive oil in 2004 and it remains a favorite.
Siurana olive oil: This isn't a brand, but rather a DOP. Kelly brought me some Siurana olive oil recently, and it's delicious. I'm not really educated when it comes to olive oils from beyond the borders of Italy or California, so this was a really great introduction to high-quality Spanish oil. Thank you, Kelly!
- California Olive Oil Council
- 8 Tips for Choosing and Using Olive Oil by David Lebovitz
- Yolo County Olive Oils: I've heard that Yolo Press makes some excellent, affordable oil, but they are all worth tasting.
- AmorOlio: Nancy Harmon Jenkins' Olive Oil Intensive in Tuscany
- Olive Oil Source: lots of great information if you have the time to dig around
Articles & Books
- Slippery Business by Tom Mueller in the New Yorker
- Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil by Tom Mueller
- Michael Pollan uses Organic Costco Extra Virgin Olive Oil for everyday cooking at home in an interview with Emily Thelin in the Wall Street Journal (I used to really raise my nose at this, but I have to say, for everyday olive oil, it's totally fine.)
- California's Olive Oils Challenge Europe's: Julia Moskin's excellent piece on California Olive Oils in the New York Times
- The Olive Oil Secret, a pretty good document with a thorough shopping and tasting guide
- Olive Oil: From Tree to Table by Peggy Knickerbocker