Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Sure, all of the dark green bottles of olive oil lining the shelves of the grocery store look almost identical. But there’s a lot that can differentiate one product from another, and there are small details that can alter the flavor and the quality of each oil.
I asked Vincent Ricchiuti, founder and COO of the family-owned and operated ENZO Olive Oil Company, what everyone should know about shopping for olive oil. The next time you head to the store to restock your pantry, keep these expert tips in mind.
Look for these key olive oil hallmarks
Picking out a great oil is as easy as looking for a few key qualities. Ricchiuti recommends looking for:
- Is the olive oil proud about the harvest date? Are they displaying that date?
- Is it in a dark, green glass bottle?
- Does the bottle carry a certification or seal from a third-party organization?
And if you’re searching for an organic olive oil, you can also look for options that are made by smaller producers who are local or who have a hand in every step of the production process.
“All of our oil is organic. Every bottle of olive oil that’s produced, every olive in there, is from our ranch,” Ricchiuti explains. “We’ve grown it, we harvested it, we’ve milled it and we’ve bottled it. When people are looking to support local farmers, buying straight from the source cuts out a lot of middle men.”
The region makes a difference, too
If you’ve ever been a little confused about oils from different areas of the world, you don’t have to stick with a certain country of origin. In fact, Ricchiuti – whose own specialty is California-grown EVOO – encourages you to try options from different regions.
“I think what’s fun about olive oil is that there are so many different varieties of olives,” he says. “There’s over 300 varieties of olive that you can make oil out of. There’s Tuscan varieties, there’s Spanish varieties, there’s Greek varieties – people grow all over the world. Every one of those varieties is going to taste a little bit different.”
If you already have a favorite region, great! But if you’ve only ever stuck with one kind of EVOO, Ricchiuti suggests broadening your horizons. “You can start doing a self-audit of what you have in your pantry, and then you can go out into the wild and experiment… You might find that ‘Oh, I really want a robust olive oil that’s super peppery, or robust, or grassy.’”
Why third-party certifications or seals matter
When you’re shopping for extra-virgin olive oil, certification can make all the difference. “You want to make sure that you’re buying olive oil that is certified,” Ricchiuti explains. “If you’re buying a California olive oil [for example], look for the California Olive Oil Council Seal (COOC). The COOC has a certification process that’ll certify that the oil in the bottle is extra-virgin.”
Getting certified as EVOO is important because it shows you can trust what’s inside the bottle. The COOC’s certification process, as Ricchiuti explains, is quite thorough: “We actually send our oil to two different labs. One is a chemical lab that runs a full chemical analysis on the oil to make sure that it meets the parameters for extra-virgin. And then it also goes to a sensory panel to get tasted. The COOC has its own panel of tasters, and they are looking for defects in the oil and, in the absence of those, they are looking at the chemical lineup.”
This means that olive oils that don’t bear a certification seal can vary pretty widely in their chemical makeup, their flavor and their quality. So, don’t assume that any ol’ olive oil includes the same ingredients as one bearing a certification.
Let taste and smell be your guide
If you’re wondering how to tell a good, quality EVOO from a less-than-stellar one, it’s all in the taste and the smell. “Oil should smell good, right?” Ricchiuti says. “It should smell great, [with] grassy notes, and fresh. It should be vibrant and delicious.”
The best way to learn what makes a good oil? Run your own taste tests! Branch out and compare what you usually buy to a variety you’ve never tried before.
“I would challenge people [to] experiment. Buy an oil that’s maybe a little higher in price, one that has that certification sticker on it, that’s close to the harvest date. Take it home and compare it to what’s in your cupboard,” Ricchiuti explains.
Flavored or infused olive oils are another great option
If you’ve ever wondered whether it’s worth picking up a bottle of flavored or infused oil, you should give it a try. These oils can actually impart amazing flavor into your cooking.
Flavored oils come in many forms, but there are different kinds – and each is made in a distinct way.
Infused oils are produced after the olive oil itself is already made. As Ricchiuti explains, “We have infused oils, which we make with our extra-virgin oil. We’ll add in the essential oils of either garlic or Meyer lemon, depending on which flavor we want to make.”
ENZO Olive Oil also makes another kind of flavored oil: crush oil. “The more special flavored oil that we make we call our crush oils. When we’re making the olive oil during harvest, we have one shot,” Ricchiuti says. “We take our fresh olives that we’ve just harvested, and then we take the ingredients that we’re going to crush. We have clementine, Eureka lemon, basil and Fresno chili. And when we’re crushing the olives, we’re throwing those raw ingredients into the crusher.”
From there, Enzo’s organic olives and fresh, raw ingredients are crushed together, commingled as they head into the centrifuge and the mill. When the process is complete, Ricchiuti has a deeply flavored olive oil. And it’s very limited; crush flavored oils are made during the harvest, once each year.
And as the result of these very different processes, the results differ noticeably once the oils are bottled. “The flavor [of infused oils] depends on who’s making the infusion,” Ricchuti points out. “You could overpower it with the infusion, by just putting more essential oils in. The Crush olive oil, it’s more complex. It’s very seasonal; it changes from year to year, depending on how the pepper crop was and how the lemons were. It’s almost like choosing a wine.”
A good bottle of EVOO can be used on everything
While there are different oils you can use in different situations and different recipes, there’s no denying how endlessly versatile olive oil is. You can cook with it; finish dishes with it; turn it into sauces, dressings and marinades; or use it to infuse flavor in countless ways.