Jane Says: You Can't Go Wrong With These Olive Oils

Here's how to shop for oil—from looking for good producers to knowing when a bottle might be damaged.

(Photo: Matthew O'Shea/Getty Images)

Jul 2, 2014· 6 MIN READ
Jane Lear is a regular contributor to TakePart and the executive editor of CURED, a magazine devoted to the art and craft of food preservation. She was on staff at 'Gourmet' for almost 20 years.
I read somewhere that you should have a few different olive oils, but is that really true? If so, what are some good olive oils to buy?
Damien Michaels

Odds are, you keep several bottles of red and white wine on hand: inexpensive-but-decent plonk for everyday meals and cooking, and a few fancier, more distinguished bottles for company. And you tailor the wine to what you’re eating, right? If it’s not compatible with the dish (a weighty Cabernet with delicate seafood, say), that doesn’t mean the wine is of poor quality or corked, but dinner isn’t going to be what it could be.

Olive oils are much the same, for there’s enormous flavor variation among them. More than 100 olive cultivars, each with its own characteristics, are used worldwide to produce oil; other factors to take into account include the quality of the fruit, when it was harvested, the soil, the weather throughout the growing season, and the expertise of the producer. Some estate-bottled oils are made from one specific cultivar and thus vary, like wine, from year to year. Others are a uniform blend of several types, often from different countries, and the result will depend on the proportion of each used. Also like wine, olive oil is expensive to make, bottle, store, and ship—and the bona fide premium stuff is well worth its price.

In other words, olive oil is far more complex than, for instance, the current darling of the “healthy fat” world, coconut oil. Although the latter has its uses, I know what I’d rather drizzle over a plate of heirloom tomatoes and basil. And I will tell you that every serious home cook I know has a whole wardrobe of olive oils—a versatile, all-purpose oil for cooking and one or more distinctive ones, which can range from peppery to gentle and buttery, to use as condiments.

Much has been made of the fact that many olive oils aren’t what they’re purported to be; in last week’s column I said this was no surprise. It’s nothing new, after all. In Olives: The Life and Lore of a Noble Fruit, Mort Rosenblum wrote that if ever there was a case of caveat emptor, olive oil was it: “Sicilian crime families first sank their roots into America just after the Civil War, bringing Italian farm workers to Louisiana after freed black slaves left.…” Importing staple foods such as olive oil was a service to the community. “What decent Italian mother could last out the week without thick, yellow southern oil to pour into minestrone? It was a handy legal cover.”

Rosenblum related a conversation he had with Nick Pileggi, the dogged reporter and screenwriter best known for writing Wise Guy: Life in a Mafia Family, which he turned into the movie Goodfellas. When Prohibition was repealed in 1933, the business took off. “A lot of those guys had all these trucks and nothing to deliver,” Pileggi explained. Demand increased again after World War II, with the proliferation of Italian restaurants and, later, pizzerias. And olive oil as a source of fraud is the subject of 2011’s Extra-Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, by Tom Mueller. After he was on Terry Gross’ Fresh Air radio program, the author was scolded by disappointed listeners for not giving them recommendations for olive oils to buy or avoid.

Enter Nancy Harmon Jenkins, one of the world’s foremost olive oil authorities. “There’s a simple reason for that, though it’s a little difficult for American consumers—used to having everything when they want it, where they want it, and at a price they can afford—to understand,” she wrote in a December 2011 blog post: “The reason? Most of the good, honest, well-made, worth the price olive oil available in this country is made by very small producers with limited distribution. Thus, if I suggest to readers that they purchase, for instance, Olio Verde from Sicily or Biolea from the island of Crete—well, good luck finding them. Even a fairly large producer like Spain’s Castillo de Canena is actually not easy to find, simply because there is not enough of it to go around for everyone who claims to want a high-quality oil (whether they’re willing to pay for it is another question). If you live in or near a city with a reputation for great food, you may find a retailer with one or more of those oils. If you’re willing to spend some time researching on line you can surely find them.”

Jenkins goes on to describe another problem with olive oil, one that Mueller’s book only touches on: the distribution network. “Once the oil has left the producer’s hands it becomes a potential victim of the time and stress involved in getting it eventually into the consumer’s kitchen…. Light and heat are the two enemies of high-quality extra-virgin—that cannot be emphasized sufficiently. And yet, I have seen, even in classy gourmet stores, clear glass bottles of what I know to be well-made extra-virgin displayed under shelf lights…. And the abuse begins even earlier in the life of the bottle. The most carefully produced oil, bottled in dark glass to keep the light out, will not benefit from sitting on a dock in New York or Boston for weeks on end in the August sun.”

Buying and Storing Olive Oil

My goal in this column every week is to be informative, not exhaustive (that’s what books are for). Before I give you a list of some of my current favorites, then, you need to know that you have a responsibility to educate yourselves by tasting as many olive oils as you can, so you can tell the difference between an oil that has stale or off flavors and one that’s fresh and well made. “You must cultivate shops where clerks and owners appear to know what they’re talking about,” wrote Jenkins in the blog post I mentioned above. “And once you’ve absorbed what they have to say, move on to another shop where you may get a very different opinion, and soon enough you will be able to evaluate which of many opinions come closer to your own.” And if you love to give parties, think about organizing an olive oil tasting with a few friends, so you can sample a variety of oils and compare notes.

Buying from a reputable source (see below), and one with a high turnover is key, obviously. If you’re buying at a store, choose a bottle at the back of the shelf, where it hasn’t been exposed to sun or fluorescent light. And don’t hoard the stuff, even if it’s expensive. Older is not better, when it comes to olive oil; it’s at its best for one year after harvest and pressing. After that, the oil begins to lose its character and eventually turns rancid. According to a study published in the Journal of Food Science, an oil that sits on the shelf for more than six months sees remarkable losses of its antioxidant phenolic content. Because age, heat, and light are all detrimental, buy olive oil in relatively small amounts, and store it in a dark, cool place (not next to the stove). If you buy in bulk, do as the Italians do: Keep refilling a clean dark wine bottle fitted with a pour spout, but take care that the oil at the bottom of the bottle doesn’t become rancid. I don’t like refrigerating olive oil to keep it fresh; the cold causes condensation to form inside the bottle, which isn’t a good thing, and I can’t imagine that repeatedly bringing the oil to room temperature and then rechilling it does the flavor any favors.

Speaking of the fridge, let me dispel the myth that olive oil is not 100 percent extra-virgin if, when placed in the refrigerator, it doesn’t cloud up. Any number of experts, from lipid scientists to investigators in the European Union’s antifraud office, will tell you that chemically, it’s difficult to tell what is extra-virgin and what is not. And because of factors such as the ripeness of the olives when harvested, how long the oil is refrigerated, and at what temperature, the fridge trick is not an accurate way of determining the quality of an olive oil, for different extra-virgin oils will respond differently.

Some Favorite Olive Oils

Every olive oil on the following idiosyncratic, far-from-definitive list is extra-virgin. I don’t do enough deep-frying to warrant keeping lesser grades (virgin, “pure”) olive oils on hand. I don’t have much experience with oils from Tunisia, Morocco, Australia, New Zealand, and Argentina, but if you come across one you like, pounce. Don’t forget to write and tell me about it.

Lower-priced extra-virgin olive oils for cooking

These oils are available at supermarkets and/or big box stores and can be found online as well.

• California Olive Ranch “Everyday”
• Corto Olive
• Costco’s Kirkland Signature (Toscano)
• Fairway (N.Y., N.J., Conn.; will ship)
• Monini

Premium extra-virgin olive oils for use as condiments

Fruity and full-flavored, with a peppery backnote, these oils pair well with potatoes, beans, grilled meats, seafood, and vegetables and are great for finishing soups and tomato-sauced pastas.

• Ravida (Sicily)
• Olio Verde (Sicily)
• Laudemio Frescobaldi (Tuscany)
• Pons Early Harvest (Catalonia)
• Grove 45 (Napa Valley)
• Moulin Jean Marie Cornille (Maussane-les-Alpilles, France)

These sharper, more peppery oils also work as a final seasoning for grilled meats and spicy, more assertive foods.

• Castello di Ama (Tuscany)
• Laudemio Poppiano (Tuscany)

More rounded, smoother oils shine in milder dishes—simple fish recipes, steamed vegetables, delicate lettuces, salad dressings.

• Les Moulins Dorés (France)
• Alziari (France)
• Dauro (Catalonia)
• Terra Medi (Greece)

Every summer, I rely on just one olive oil for weekends away and an annual beach vacation. It has to be inexpensive enough to cook with yet have enough character to act as a condiment. My oil of choice this year is Paesano, from Sicily, which is available at Whole Foods.

Some Favorite Sources

Again, this list is far from complete but these are among the sources I know and trust:

Corti Brothers (Sacramento, Calif.)
Formaggio Kitchen (Cambridge, Mass., and New York City)
Katz & Co. (Napa, Calif.)
Murray’s Cheese (New York City)
Zingerman’s (Ann Arbor, Mich.)