How to Select Olive Oil

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In Mediterranean countries, olive groves grow on nearly every countryside property, and families meet in collectives to press and bottle the combined fruits of their labor. As with wine, the characteristics of olive oil depend on the soil and climate where the trees are grown, the type of olives pressed (see How to Select Olives) and the method of pressing.

  • Look at the color. Green oils, made from early-harvested olives, are fruity, peppery and ripe. Yellow-gold oils taste buttery and smooth. You'll benefit from the increased polyphenols and other antioxidants in green oil, but it's mostly a matter of preference.

  • Taste olive oils at a gourmet grocery store or specialty shop's tasting station to find a flavor you like.

  • Buy locally pressed oils in California, Oregon and Texas soon after bottling for the freshest and most flavorful products. The pressing season runs from October to late January.

  • Choose extra-virgin olive oil for most of your cooking needs. For frying, use virgin olive oil, which will impart less flavor, is less expensive and won't burn as easily as extra-virgin olive oil.

  • Find a filtered olive oil for saute'ing and roasting, and an unfiltered olive oil for salad dressings and to drizzle on soups or pastas.

  • Cruise the Web. ChefShop (chefshop.com) has a wide variety of oils, or try Dean & DeLuca (deandeluca.com). Order the Corti Brothers catalog at (800) 509-3663 for an even greater variety of high-quality domestic and imported olive oils.

  • Store oils in a cool, dark place. Olive oils are a fresh food and can go rancid. Life span can be as little as three months for an unfiltered, late-harvest olive oil bottled in clear glass, to four years for an early-harvest, filtered oil packaged in a well-sealed tin or dark bottle and properly stored.

Tips & Warnings

  • Avoid light olive oil; it's diluted and flavorless, and the term light is meaningless. It has the same number of calories as other olive oils, about 125 per tablespoon.
  • Make your own infused olive oils by simply putting herbs, truffle shavings or lemon zest in a bottle and fill with a mild-flavored olive oil.
  • Buyer beware: In Europe, fine olive oils have a label that indicates the country and region of production; no such system currently exists in the United States.

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