While you can find many of the best olive oils by purchasing them directly from a supplier, you will inevitably find yourself staring at a row of bottles at your local grocery store at some point. Although a label can never guarantee an excellent olive oil made at the highest standards, a tipoff to lower-quality bottles would certainly be the absence of the following information. Check the label!
What: At the very least, the label should read “extra virgin” rather than “pure,” “light,” “olive oil” or “olive pomace oil,” all of which indicate the oil has been refined chemically.
Where: Quality olive oil should include on the label the exact mill where it was produced. Note that this is not the same as being “packed in” or “bottled in” some location other than where the olives were actually grown and harvested.
When: Freshness is the biggest determinant of both nutrition and flavor. If possible, choose bottles with a date of harvest within the previous year. If the precise harvest date is not listed, your next best bet is to look for a “best by” date as far out as possible. “Best by” dates should be about two years after the oil was bottled (though, unfortunately, not necessarily when the olives were harvested).
If the bottle includes a free fatty acidity (FFA) rating, look for a number as close to zero as possible. Levels above 0.5 are likely to be inferior. A peroxide value, which reveals how much an oil has been oxidized, should also be as low as possible, and ideally below 10 meq/kg (milliequivalents per kilo). If an oil’s polyphenol levels are high, this indicates healthfulness and flavor. Below 300 is low; above 500 is high, and also carries more bitterness and pepperiness.
• Avoid bottles with sediment on the bottom, which can spoil the oil and make it taste muddy.
• If you want strong-flavored oils, look for “robust” or “early harvest” on the label. For milder flavors, look for “delicate” or “late harvest.”
• Though high cost never guarantees quality, if you’re paying less than $10 for a liter of olive oil, it is probably inferior quality.
Tom Mueller, olive oil quality expert, recommends the following modestly priced olive oils he has personally tasted to consumers who are mainly interested in buying their cooking oils from supermarkets and big box stores.
• California Olive Ranch (available widely in the United States)
• Cobram Estate (Cost Plus World Market and other large chains)
• Corto Olive (Costco and other retailers)
• Kirkland Toscano (Costco)
• Oleoestepa (slowly arriving in more U.S. stores)
• O-Live (select stores)
• Ottavio (select stores)
• Omaggio (Sam’s Club)
• California 365 (Whole Foods)
These retailers all offer superb selections of olive oils that meet stringent quality standards. The oils come from Greece, Italy, Spain and other areas with Mediterranean-like climates, such as California.• Gustiamo
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