So you can jump ahead if you like, here’s where I describe a rather large purchase of many olive oils at once. Here’s where I discuss the olive oil itself. We also did a tasting (many years ago now), and I’ll share the olive oils I reach for every time.
For me, Olive Oil was a thing I grew up with. It was something Jeff Smith said we should use, and my parents listened. But, it was also expensive. So, they compromised and bought it by the gallon at Costco and Price Club. Yeah, I just dated myself. I’m cool with that. Are you?
In college, I continued this olive oil buying habit, but on a smaller scale. After all, I really only fed myself, and whatever other people showed up at my apartment to eat – rarely more than five others. I’d roll into the condiment (re: oil) section of the grocery store, stroll past all the corn and canola oil, and go straight for the, “speciality,” oils. I grabbed the cheapest one (broke college student) and usually the next size up from the smallest (because Rachel Ray taught us that olive oil can go rancid).
Then one night, someone gifted me a higher quality olive oil. It was likely my dad. And he likely brought it to me from Trader Joe’s, a place I only dreamed of in the remote, rural little town I called home. I sauteed some onions and mushrooms with a bit of sage in this treat of an oil, deglazed with a bit of balsamic vinegar, and called it dinner; a pretty regular meal for me. But, this time, it was different. This time, the mushrooms carried fruit with them. They were lighter, less oily feeling, and sweet. In fact, everything I used the olive oil for was sweet. I used it in pancakes, bread, to saute all varieties of vegetables, and as salad dressing. My tongue danced in delight at the results.
When I ran out of this fancy olive oil, I went back to my old buying habits. A budget is a budget, right? Except, where it had been sweet, food gained a bitter, acrid flavor – almost rancid – when I started using the cheaper olive oil again. I toughed it out through the end of that bottle, and haven’t looked back sense.
Choosing An Olive Oil
We did an olive oil tasting many years ago. Here’s how it went down:
What I affectionately call the condiment aisle at my favorite local grocery store boasts about 3 feet of various cooking/specialty oils. This doesn’t include the swaths of corn and canola oil that line the aisle as thickly as the coke does in the
liquid sugar soda aisle. I’m specifically thinking about the, “specialty,” oils – the flavored oils and the avocado oil and the nut oils, etc. Scan this section of the grocery store, and you may well have a heart attack at the prices. Here is where your options are presented.
Many years ago, Sam and I threw our hands up in the air and came home with a haul of olive oils. We bought every reasonable bottle the Boise Co-op had to offer. The only bottles of olive oil we didn’t grab were the ones that didn’t have, “cold-processed,” (more on that in a minute) and nothing that had been infused with any other flavor. We also only grabbed bottles of virgin and extra virgin olive oil. We also grabbed a few baguettes, about 5 pounds of onions, a couple of pounds of mushrooms, a pound of butter, two cartons of eggs, and headed home to have an olive oil tasting.
Okay, so, why did we come home with these olive oils to try? It’s all about what olive oil is, where it comes from, and how it’s made.
The Olive Oil
Olive oil is just that – it the oil out of an olive. Almost everything we eat has some level of oil in it, from grapes and their seeds to citrus oils hiding in the rind, to butter; oil is found everywhere. When it comes to oil-rich foods, like avocados, nuts, seeds, and, yes, even olives, that oil is relatively easy to get to, but it still has to be extracted. For fruits like olives and nuts, there’s two basic processes: squishing the oil out, and extracting it with steam. The first method is the preferred method. In the case of my favorite olive oils, the olives are literally crushed between two large stones, much like grains at a mill. The bits of fruit are filtered out, and what’s left is extra virgin olive oil – it’s the first pressing. This oil is strong and fruity. It’s often a green-ish tint, and will always have a bit of sediment at the bottom. This sediment is also why many will say not to use extra virgin olive oil for cooking – only use it for salads or to drizzle on top of food. Personally, I ignore this. More on that in a minute.
The fruit, however, still has some oil left in it after that first pressing. A second pressing, with more pressure, squeezes out virgin olive oil. It’s still not had anything added to it. This second pressing does produce more heat and thus more friction. The oil isn’t as deep and rich. It tends to be a bit yellow in color, and less of the original flavor of the olive comes through. If you’re in the, “don’t use extra virgin olive oil to saute anything in – it’s a waste,” camp, this is the alternative.
Heat and solvent pressed olive oils are the ones that are highly inferior. They often taste rancid and may have been sitting on the shelf for entirely too long. Heat affects the flavor of, well, everything. When you’re starting with an oil that’s been extracted using heat and then apply more heat, well, the flavor changes in a rather unpleasant manner. But, you don’t have to take my word for it. You can have your own tasting. Yes, I use extra virgin olive oil for everything. Here’s why.
Back from the grocery store with at least a dozen bottles of olive oil, we sliced into the baguettes and pulled out the shot glasses. We set one glass in front of each bottle of olive oil and poured a couple of tablespoons into each glass, intent on tasting them all. Immediately, we noticed huge variances in color, and pulled out pen and paper and started making notes about color, viscosity, and scent before we ever tasted it.
Then we drank the oil.
No, we didn’t toss back olive oil shots like vodka or tequila. But, we did take small sips of each oil directly from the glass. Glass is innert – it doesn’t transfer any flavor into whatever its holding. No metals, spoons, or anything else. We did eat a slice of bread between each tasting. From these dozen oils, we selected our top four or five, and got to work cooking and tasting. We took notes and we tasted. We chopped and sauteed and caramelized and ate.
And we took a break and went to the internet.
Olives come from a tree native to the Mediterranean. You likely associate it with Italian food. Besides the cuisine having excellent marketing, the country sticks out like, well, a boot, straight into the Mediterranean Sea. We all know Greece loves their olive oil as well, however France, Spain, and even Morocco, and Turkey all touch the Mediterranean, and these are just the cuisines I’m somewhat familiar with. All of these areas offer a warmer, arid environment that olives love. In the US, California, and even some parts of the Northwest, offer a similar environment that olives thrive in. This reduces shipping costs as well as the over-all environmental impact. It also helps guarantee you know where your olive oil came from. Labeling laws are a funny thing, and products that do as little as pass through Italy can be labeled as a product of Italy. Even my own favorite olive oil producer makes an olive oil from Italian olives. Though Italy, Spain, and similar produce some really amazing products, you can get them a little closer to home (yeah, I’m assuming you live in the US – if you don’t, there is very likely a more local to you olive oil producer as well).
So, what exactly are my favorite olive oils, you ask? First off, there are no affiliate links here nor is there any sponsored content. Any brands or products we recommend or mention are because we have tried them and loved them. AS of publication, we don’t nor are we seeking to work with any product of any sort. If you like what you see around here, check out the digital products we sell and support us. Or just talk about us on your favorite social media. There’s links above and below.
Before you get too excited, yes, I’m going to recommend an extra virgin olive oil for every application, even for cooking. This may be an unpopular opinion. It’s still mine. We live in a small apartment and counter and cupboard space is at a premium. I like extra virgin olive oil for its flavor. If some of that flavor is degraded by cooking it, I’m okay with that. I don’t think it makes the food bitter or otherwise distasteful. Almost everyone else out there will tell you not do use extra virgin olive oil to cook with because of it’s relatively low smoke point. I’m going to say it’s okay. It’ll be alright. And, you don’t have to agree with me.
Napa Valley Naturals
My absolute favorite olive oil is produced by Napa Valley Naturals. Their Rich & Robust Olive Oil is just that: it’s deeply flavored, buttery, smooth, and brings a lovely if not subtle olive flavor to everything we use it in. And we use it in everything, even cakes and cookies. The olives used for this particular product come straight from Northern California, as do the olives used in most of their olive oils. Take a gander at their catalog – it’s rather impressive. Although their Rich & Robust is by far my favorite, all of their extra virgin olive oils are delicious and produce amazing results. If you want to have your own tasting like we did above, starting with just the different varieties from this company would leave you with a wide selection to try.
My next favorite is the every day olive oil from Lucini. I know, I know, the product is a product of Italy, and I mentioned I tend to stay away from imported olive oils. It’s true, I do. But, well, the one I really like isn’t always available. Other people like it, too, and it does sometimes sell out. This olive oil is a lighter, less buttery, but quite serviceable workhorse.
The Mill at Kings River/New Seasons
Yeah, we live in Portland, Oregon. And we shop local as much as possible. New Seasons puts all of that right in your face: it’s almost hard to buy from a non-local producer if there is one in the area. They partner with The Mill at Kings River to produce an olive oil branded to the store. Yes, I realize that Northern California is a far cry away from Portland, Oregon, however, when you’re looking at buying a product from the next state over or from half way around the world, the closer one is clearly more local.
Do you have a favorite olive oil? Leave a comment.