How to Buy a Great Olive Oil
When it comes to olive oil, there are many choices: virgin, extra-virgin, light, extra-light, Italian, Imported, etc… but what does it all mean? Is “extra-virgin” olive oil somehow morally superior to plain ‘ole “virgin” olive oil? And what makes an olive oil “light” or “extra-light?” In order to get some clarity, we’ve gone to the olive oil guru, Tom Mueller. His book, Extra Virginity, is a recently published, and highly informative guide to the world of olive oil. Outlined below are some of the book’s most important points that can help you choose the best olive oil for the best price.
1. Virginity – The “virginity” of an olive oil refers to a few things – primarily how the oil was extracted from the olives. *Virgin and extra-virgin olive oil must have only been extracted by mechanical means (i.e. crushing and pressing) at a low temperature in order to earn one of these titles. Also necessary: the oil be the freshest, most pure, have the lowest acidity, and the highest amount of health benefits (antioxidants) to be called virgin or extra-virgin.
*Beware! These terms are loosely regulated (especially in the US), and many loop-holes exist that manufacturers will use in order to put an extra-virgin label on undeserving olive oil product. Mueller asserts that approximately 50 percent of US-sold extra-virgin-labeled olive oils are “adulterated” – meaning they’re lower quality oils that’ve been either mixed with a small amount of true extra-virgin oil, deodorized, and/or treated in some way to make them resemble extra-virgin olive oil.
2. Italian – If an olive oil is labelled “Italian,” it doesn’t necessarily mean it will be a great olive oil. While it’s true that Italy has some amazing olive oils, it’s not the only country capable of producing such excellence. Additionally, Mueller points out in an interview with NPR that many oils labelled “Italian” have “been packed in Italy or have been transited through Italy just long enough to get the Italian flag on them,” so they may not even be true Italian olive oils.
3. Imported – just means that the oil came from another country (could be Canada, for example) and doesn’t have anything to do with the quality of the oil. Imported oils could be of very high quality, but local oils are equally as likely to be great, and may even be more fresh given that they have a shorter distance (less time) to travel.
4. Light and extra-light – In his own words, Mueller expresses “Extra light is just as caloric as any other oil — 120 calories per tablespoon, but the average person looking at it might say, ‘Oh, well, I’ve heard olive oil is a fat, so I will try extra light olive oil.’ …it’s highly, highly refined. It has almost no flavor and no color. And it is, in fact, extra-light in the technical sense of being clear.”
The secret to finding a great olive oil lies in finding a producer who takes the notion of “extra-virginity” extra seriously. Cold-pressed, very fresh oil will have the best flavor, aroma, and health benefits. To get the best extra-virgin olive oil for the lowest price (in the US), Mueller recommends trying Corto Olive brand oils or California Olive Ranch.
For Central Texans, check out our very own Texas Hill Country Olive Co. for high-quality extra-virgin (and organic!) local olive oil.
For everyone, we highly recommend Mueller’s Extra Virginity for additional perspective. Buy it in hard copy or digital form here.
(image: Seamus O’Connor)