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Tips for buying olive oil: The way we’ve been thinking about olive oil is all wrong

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Tips for buying olive oil: It turns out that we’ve been thinking about extra virgin olive oil all wrong.

Yes, it’s healthy and tasty — great for brushing on a crusty baguette or using for a quick sauté — but as a food, it’s more akin to fresh-squeezed orange juice than to a pantry staple that sits for months on a kitchen shelf.

Tips for buying olive oil
Tips for buying olive oil

Olives are a fruit, and extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) comes from crushing the fresh fruit and extracting the oil. The flavor should be fruity and often a bit bitter, with a pungency that imparts a spicy or peppery sensation, said Dan Flynn, the executive director of the UC Davis Olive Center.

To ensure you’re getting the best, freshest flavor, buy EVOO in the year of its harvest and in quantities that you can use in a month or two. Look for containers that minimize exposure to light and store the oil somewhere cool and dark.

“Those bitter and pungent compounds are related to antioxidants in the oil that are good for you,” Flynn said. When used in cooking, they also add depth and complexity to the dish: think of the bitter notes that give nuance to chocolate, for example.

Like wine, the flavor of olive oil is highly variable depending on the type of olives that are used to make it.

“Part of the fun is learning all the flavors out there. People should try new stuff, seek out new flavors,” Flynn said.

The UC Davis Olive Center conducts research at two different olive orchards and bottles its own high-quality EVOO from the 30 different varieties of olive trees that grow on campus.

Most commercial olive oil is made with a blend of different olives, but this fall, for the first time, the Olive Center will bottle six kinds of single-variety olive oils — a great way for people to taste the different flavor profiles.

Beginning in November, consumers will be able buy it at UC Davis stores or online, with all proceeds going to support the Olive Center and its research.

Tips for buying olive oil

Tips for buying olive oil

  • Check for a harvest date
    Better producers will often indicate on the container when the olives were harvested. Look for the most recent harvest, which is typically October – December in the Northern Hemisphere and May – June in the Southern Hemisphere. A “best by” date often is two years from the time the bottle was filled, not when the olives were processed, and therefore is an unreliable indicator of quality.
  • Value freshness
    Find a truly fresh extra virgin olive oil and compare with the familiar “olivey” flavor often mislabeled as extra virgin. A quality extra virgin olive oil should smell and taste fresh, have fruity notes (descriptors might include grassy, apple, green banana, artichoke and herbaceous), and may have bitterness and spiciness (which are indicators of healthy antioxidants.)
  • Choose a good container
    Heat and light are the enemies of freshness. Containers are made from dark glass, tin, or even clear glass largely covered by a label or placed in a box.
  • Look for a quality seal
    Producer organizations such as the California Olive Oil Council and the Australian Olive Association require olive oil to meet quality standards that are stricter than the minimal USDA standards. Other seals may not offer such assurance.
  • Keep cool and dark
    Exposure to heat and light will diminish freshness and shorten the shelf life of olive oil.
  • Use it up
    To enjoy extra virgin olive oil at its best, buy in a container size that can be finished in about six weeks or so. Freshness will diminish with time.
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