Olive Oil 101: You shouldn't sizzle what you drizzle

Americans love olive oil. Studies indicating that it is a more healthful choice than other oils helped double the consumption in the United States since 1993. And just last November, the Food and Drug Administration announced that consumers might reduce their risk of heart disease if they consume monounsaturated fat from olive oil.

But which oil should you choose? Walk into a local grocery store, be it a large chain or a small specialty market, and chances are you will be overwhelmed with olive oil choices.

Many will have Italian names and words like “extra virgin,” “cold-pressed” and “light” on the label. Some are packaged in fancy bottles with a fancy price; others are less costly and packaged in large tin containers. How do you decide? Besides, Italians produce the most olive oil worldwide, so they must know how to make good oil, right?

“Spain produces over half the world’s olive oil. Italy and Greece are neck and neck for second place,” said Judy Ridgway, international olive oil expert and author of the forthcoming “Judy Ridgway’s Best Olive Oil Buys Round the World: The New Edition.”

Ridgway went on to correct another misconception about olive oil: that extra virgin is always the better choice. “Use extra virgin for everything except high-temperature cooking or deep fat frying,” she said.

Josh Armbruster, executive chef at City Grocers, explained why. “Extra virgin loses its flavor profile in the heat. Once you heat the oil to a certain temperature, it starts to break down, and you’re killing the flavor you’ve paid more for. Extra virgin is best for salad dressing, marinade and drizzling over foods.”

Realizing I’ve been buying and using olive oil the wrong way for years, I needed answers to even more questions. Amy Jackson, food and cheese buyer for The Wine and Cheese Place, provided some help. She defined extra virgin olive oil as the oil from the first cold pressing of the olives. This is the highest grade of olive oil available. Jackson said virgin olive oil is also a cold press but contains some flaws in taste or acidity that keep it from extra virgin status. Some producers use heat or chemicals in addition to pressing machines during the refining process. Once they do, the oil is no longer considered extra virgin or virgin. Pure or 100 percent olive oil is a blend of low-quality virgin olive oils refined using mechanical, thermal and/or chemical processes. Jackson said the resulting oil is largely colorless and tasteless.

“After the [first] pressing, they may take the debris and press it again,” explained Betty Pustarfi, owner of Strictly Olive Oil, a consulting service to the olive oil industry. “This lowest grade is called pomace or sometimes olive-pomace oil. Some extra virgin may be added for flavor. Most of the time this grade is used in bulk food service.”

Finally there is “light” or “extra light” olive oil. The terms have nothing to do with fat or calories, the usual meaning for these words in relation to food. They refer only to the color and taste.

“The label is important, but in the U.S. it’s extremely deceptive,” Pustarfi explained. “For example ‘bottled in Italy’ or ‘imported from Italy’ might lead you to believe it is 100 percent Italian olive oil, but if you look at the labels closely, many of them will tell you the oil is from Spain, Greece, Tunisia, Turkey or some combination and truly just bottled in Italy.” I checked my own bottle – she was right.

Other important information to look for on the bottle is a date. “A harvest date is the best information. That tells when it’s been bottled. The shelf life of a good olive oil is 12 to 18 months,” Pustarfi said. If you can’t find a harvest date, a “best before” date may also be helpful, but many of the bottles I looked at in various markets had no dates at all.

Jackson issued a warning associated to expiration. “Buying in large quantities is not recommended. Unlike wine, [olive oil] does not get better with age – it gets rancid.”

“Don’t be fooled by packaging,” Armbruster said. “Sometimes a nice bottle contains just average oil. I look for color. I want my olive oil to have a nice yellow with a hint of green. And when you taste it, it’s just a very smooth, wonderful, fruity, olive taste.”

Jackson recommended purchasing according to regional flavor: “If you look at where an oil is from, you can get a general idea of the flavor because the growing conditions and region affect taste. For example Tuscan oils are usually rich and fruity with peppery tones, while oil from southern Italy tastes more delicate and mellow. Spanish oils typically have a full-bodied fruitiness with a slight bitterness. Greek oils are usually robust and assertive. Olive oil from Chile and Australia are also really hot right now; however, the production level in these countries is much smaller.”

I think I’m ready to shop now. But if you spot me in the olive oil aisle looking indecisive, please walk up and help me decide.