Understanding Olive Oil

For the past five years, I have been doing seminars for our local farm market. I concentrate on sharing inside information that I have learned from my passion for food. This year I decided to investigate olive oils from around the world. With all this hype on olive oils lately what do we really know about them?

So, let me share how it came to be that I am so passionate about olive oil.

As you probably know by now if you have been following my blog entries, my parents came from Italy to the US in the late 1950’s. So, while growing up we would often go to Italy to visit our relatives. My dad came from the town of Monte di Procida while my mom was from the island of Ischia. Both overlooked the bay of Naples. There is one memorable experience that made a real impact and was the catalyst for my passion for food. I must have been around 10 years old. My Nonna handed me an empty green bottle and asked me to go to the corner store ‘Rosarios’ to fill up the bottle with olive oil. My chest filled up with self-importance with this chore. Never been allowed to walk to ‘Rosarios’ by myself before, I relished this task. That may be why I paid extra attention to Nonna drizzling the thick green oil over the tomatoes we were going to have for lunch. I noticed that when she put it back in the cupboard, she placed it next to a clear bottle of oil. I asked Nonna why she had 2 bottles of oil. She explained to me that the clear bottle is used for frying and the green oil is for everything else. That afternoon I took notice on how delicious the tomato salad was. That taste of olive oil was embedded into my memory. When we came back to the US I often wondered why we didn’t have that same olive oil. When I moved out of my parents’ home I was on a mission to find a comparable olive oil. So, while my friends were all tasting their first beer I was tasting olive oil.

You think I am weird?

Recently I had the occasion to ask my son who went to Italy to visit with his grandmother at the age of 10 years old what he remembers most about that trip. I had been talking to my cousin who resides in Italy and her kids to this day talk about when Josh went to visit. It was 19 years ago, so I wondered if my son even remembered. And this is how I know that he is my son. He said that he still thinks about that delicious tomato and tuna salad that my cousin made. He still is searching to find that same taste! And I believe it’s the olive oil.

The reason both he and I are so crazed about this olive oil is that it wasn’t until the 1980’s that extra virgin olive oil was even made available in America. In the 1980’s the International Olive Oil Council started sponsoring and promoting research about the healthy “Mediterranean diet.”  This coincided with the Slow Food movement emerging from Turin, emphasizing the European style artisanal approach to crafting food products. Finally, olive oil was distributed in the U.S. It was successful marketing of olive oil that contributed to the olive boom!  Because of the wide marketing campaign of healthy olive oil, consumption of olive oil worldwide from 1990 to present blew up. The US consumption increased by 250%. The United Kingdom increased by 763%. Consumption in Italy Greece and Spain increased minimally because it was always part of their diet. So, Olive Oil business has become a gold mine and everyone wants to get in on it. So, that’s why you see so many more countries involved in growing olive trees and making oil.

As I have been talking to people and reading up about olive oil, I realized that many Americans although knowledgeable about the health benefits of olive oil, don’t know what a good olive oil is supposed to taste like. For that matter, Americans may not realize that to have health benefits it has to be unrefined extra virgin olive oil. We have all become so accustomed to the cheaper supermarket big chain olive oils that we have no idea what a good olive oil is even supposed to taste like. Our palates have become accustomed the bad characteristics of Olive Oil as typical. That’s why I have this need to share with you what I have learned about Olive oils and what you may be missing out on!

Good Characteristics of Olive oil are the following:

Fruity, Bitter and pungent (the peppery characteristic you feel at the back of your throat. Olive oil should taste fresh and not heavy and oily.

The bad characteristics are:

Fusty from olives that are gathered in piles. Musty when olive is stored in humid environment. Sometimes metallic if it comes in contact with prolonged contact with metal during storage. And the most common is rancid. It has gone bad. Almost like the taste of stale crackers that are made with fat. Olive oil only has a shell life of 2 years. But once it’s opened you need to use it within a month or two.

During my seminar, we tasted olive oils from around the world. So, to understand what we tasted I went over a few things that are important when picking out an olive oil.

There are several factors that impact the taste of olive oils.

So, that by understanding what you like will impact what country olive oil you will gravitate to.

  1. variety of olives used
  2. location and soil condition
  3. environmental factors and weather. 2 years ago, Italy had a disease that affected many olive groves. This past year Spain has been having lots of rain that impacted the olives groves where production was at an all-time low. You will see a rise in the price of Spanish olive oil.
  4. Olive ripeness. Green olives are bitter while ripe olives are fruity
  5. Timing of the harvest. If you wait too long the olives get too ripe and will bruise causing the olive oil to not taste good.
  6. Length of time between the harvest and pressing. The longer the wait between harvest and pressing the more the olive gets damaged and bruised yielding a terrible olive oil. That’s why estate olive oil is so much better. They go directly from the tree to the press. The bigger national olive oils will collect olives from all over and transport them to a manufacturing plant. The olives get too ripe and acquire mold. They are cheaper because it is mass produced but the olive oil is not very good.
  7. The very best oils come from small producers who have complete control over their orchard, the harvesting of the fruit, the pressing of the olives, and the storage and eventual bottling of the product. Ripe olives are easily bruised…
  8. Additionally, the press and the bottling facility must be readily available, ideally on the farm itself. Ripe olives are easily bruised and must be held in small containers before pressing in order to avoid being squeezed by their own weight and begin deterioration. A controlled environment with ultra-sanitary conditions is paramount. The pressing process must be accomplished in the briefest time possible.
  9. Pressing technique. The best oils are pressed within a few hours, and certainly not to exceed 24 hours after the harvest, any delay beyond this time frame has a detrimental effect on the quality of the oil. The pressing to extract the oil must happen quickly and at a controlled temperature of (ideally) of less than 80 degrees F.
  10. Packaging and storing.
  11. Being a fruit, olives contain natural antioxidants that protect the plant during its lifetime. When the olive tree is very old it contains more of these antioxidants. This is one of the reasons that olive trees are often hundreds of years old and create antioxidant rich products

Estate olive oils are the cream of the crop. 

They are produces using olives from a single farm. The olives are usually handpicked and then pressed and bottles at the estate. In Italy, they are called DOP. These olives oils are more expensive.


Two types of blends are either blends from different countries or olives from diverse areas of one country are combines. The bulk blended oils are the most economical but are still high quality.


  1. Green comes from unripe olives and are slightly bitter.
  2. Emerald tinged have fruity, grassy and peppery that dominate the food that you use them on.
  3. Golden color is made from ripe olives. Golden olive oil has a milder, smoother buttery taste without bitterness. These are good with foods that you don’t want overshadowed with olive oil taste.


To start with, if you purchase quality EVOO the acidity level is already low at no more than .8% (That’s less than 1%) Acidity levels are determined solely by the variety of olive and by production methods. Some olives have a naturally higher acidity level. If they are not harvested with care and quickly processed into olive oil they will have even greater levels. Some on the other hand have lower acidity to start but if they are not harvested and processed properly the levels will increase. This is why olives from the same variety and the same grove can produce different grades of olive oil. If the olives are picked and pressed within 24 hours, as all of the ones in my line are, they will never have acidity levels greater than the required .8%. If oils are blended, as is done routinely with lower grade and refined olive oil it can produce lower acidity levels and then be passed off as “extra virgin”.

So long as the oil is real EVOO (and many are not even though they claim to be) there is no reason to choose based on acidity. It should be based on taste and what one wants to do with the olive oil

Refined Olive Oils

Only about 30 percent of all olive oil production ends at extracting the oil from the olives. Refining involved using solvents and high heat to neutralize the tastes of the oil. This allows producers to use olives that are not in the best condition, and blend from oils from a wide variety of sources (even countries) because the bad tastes resulting from oxidized olives and the mass production process are chemically removed. When you see “Pure Olive Oil” at the store, or a bottle that says simply “Olive Oil,” “Genuine”, “Light”, “certified”, these are refined. Refined has no antioxidants! So, they don’t meet the criteria for International Olive Oil healthy diet.

How to Taste Olive Oil

Tasting olive oil straight is the best way to judge its quality. Pour a little in a small glass and warm the glass in one hand, while covering it with the other. Now put your nose into the glass to sense the aromas. Hopefully, it reminds you of things like fresh olives, grass, bananas and apples. Hay, cardboard, vinegar, mud and mustiness are some of the aromas that indicate an olive oil has gone bad.

Storing Olive Oil

You can keep unopened olive oil in a cool, dark place for up to two years (high quality olive oil will last longer than one that wasn’t great to begin with).

Once you open the container, the oil begins to degrade much faster. A good rule of thumb is to use it within a few months after opening. Keep the bottle tightly capped and away from heat and direct light. The best strategy is to use olive oil often, and go through it quickly.

Extra virgin olive oil and wine also share the same “enemies:” heat, oxygen and light. Olive oils have a relatively short shelf life and once the bottles are opened and exposed to oxygen, the oils will naturally begin to break down and lose both their organoleptic and nutritive properties. Freshness therefore, becomes a huge issue, although older oils can still be excellent cooking oils. Storage after purchase is also important. If possible, extra virgin olives oils are best stored in a cool, dark place like a cabinet. Do not store or display your oil on or near your stove or on a window sill.

What is Extra Virgin Olive Oil?

  1. the oil must come from fresh olives that were milled within 24 hours of their harvest.
  2. it must be extracted by mechanical means, not from heat or chemicals. It’s called unrefined.
  3. They must not be treated chemically in any way.
  4. Being a fruit, olives contain natural antioxidants that protect the plant during its lifetime. When the olive tree is very old it contains more of these antioxidants. This is one of the reasons that olive trees are often hundreds of years old and create antioxidant rich products.
  5. Extra virgin oil is, in fact, fresh olive juice.

Extra-virgin olive oil (cold pressed) is the best.

But how do we know if it is the real thing and not a fraud olive oil?

Seven Tips for Recognizing Real Extra Virgin Olive Oil

  1. Do not buy light olive oil or a blend; it isn’t virgin quality.
  2. When extra virgin olive oil costs less than $10 a liter it may not be real.
  3. Only buy oils in dark bottles, as this protects the oil from oxidation.
  4. Look for a seal from the International Olive Oil Council (IOC)
  5. Look for a harvesting date on the label.
  6. Olive oil can get old and rancid. A simple test for a “good” olive oil is to taste a little on a spoon. Not rancid, real olive oil will have a fruity taste in the front of your mouth and a peppery taste in the back of your mouth.
  7. How about the fridge test as stated by Dr Oz? He said that when you put a real extra-virgin olive oil in the refrigerator, it will become thick and cloudy as it cools completely. That is not a for sure test (some oils made from high-wax olive varieties will even solidify) according to a Fridge Test.

Olive Oils from Around the World  

When buying olive oil, you’ll see varieties from all over the world. Most of the world’s supply are grown in Spain, Italy and Greece. Traditionally olive trees have been located in countries surrounding the Mediterranean Sea because they need hot summers and mild winters. But now other countries are participating in the production of Olive Oil which includes other oils from California, France, Turkey and even Israel!

How to Pick a Good Olive Oil

  1. Look on label that it says Extra Virgin Olive Oil   ( Cold pressed or first pressed labels are just marketing terms. All extra virgin olive oils are the first pressed and no heat is added
  2. )Europe has strict standards set by the International Olive Oil Council labeled as IOC. Thy insure that olives are processed soon after picking and that it passed the laboratory and IOC sensory tests.
  3. US doesn’t belong to IOC  but has the USDA which as similar practices but not as strict
  4. You cant accept that a bottle of extra virgin olive oil by its label. You need to look for certification that it was produced and processed in same place.
    • a) PDO  Protected Designation of Origins. Certificate that oil was     produced and processed in same place.
    • b) DPO or DOP  Italian version of PDO
    • c) AOC   French version of PDO
    • d)PGI  Protected Geographical Indication – not as stringent as PDO but it does mean that one stage of production, processing or preparation took place in one geographical region.
    • e) US Standards – NAOOA  North American Olive Oil Association same as IOC for the US. (COOC California Olive Oil Council Seal – means it has gone thru laboratory and sensory tests.)
    • f) Harvest date tells you month and date olives were picked and   Olive oil have a 2 year shelf life  for certain olives. But some olives in olive oils are best consumed within 12-18 months after harvest time.
    • g) Best Before or Use by dates if it doesn’t have harvest date
  5. Bottles– don’t pay attention to fancy glass bottles but just notice if bottle is either opaque or tinted. They keep olive oil from being oxidized caused by light. Clear glass is a warning that olive oil may oxidize quicker and flavor is ruined.
  6. Storage– store olive oil in a cupboard away from heat and light
  7. Organic Olive Oil– free from chemical fertilizers. BUT!  Olive trees in general are very hearty and they require little to no pesticide to grow. Totally unlike our apple crops!  But most growers outside of US do not use any chemicals on their olive trees. But if you worry then Organic is certified
  8. Types of Olive Oils on the market
    • a) Extra Virgin Olive Oil – Few flavor defects, Vigorously tested for purity and quality. Free acidity level of less than .8%. The low amount of processing means the olive oil type retains more polyphenols and anti oxidants than anyother types.
    • b) Virgin Olive Oil – free acidity less than 2%  Minor Flavor alterations
    • c) Refined Olive Oil – Treated with heat and chemicals. Tastes neutral. Tastes less like olives than virgin oils. Free acidity is less than .3%
    • d) Olive oil – sometimes labels as pure or classic. Acidity level is less than 1%. It’s a blend of 15-25 % virgin olive oil with refined olive to eliminate flavor flaws.
    • e) Light olive oil or extra light Olive oil- acidity level less than 1%  a mix of 5-10%  virgin olive oil with refined olive oil. These aren’t labeled light because of calories. Light in terms of flavor and then have the least antioxidants.
  9. Color – Don’t be fooled by color! High quality can fall between pale yellow to dark green. It depends on olive type, harvest time, growing region and climate.
  10. Cooking with EVOO – can cook at moderate temperatures. Save the higher quality of extra virgin olive oils for drizzling!

See our White Bean (Cannellini) Soup recipe.