How to choose the best olive oil
By: Chef Cristian Feher
Choosing the right olive oil can be a daunting task. Going to the olive oil section at your local grocery store can seem like shoe shopping at the sporting goods store - an entire wall of goods, all similar looking, and all advertised to be the best. But unlike shoes, you can't usually try out the olive oils before you buy them. And even if you could, what should you look for?
In this article I will provide you with a crash course on olive oil so you can reign supreme in the salad arena, and be an envied oil know-it-all at your next dinner party.
A marketing mistake
Almost all olive oil you find nowadays come in clear plastic or glass bottles. The manufacturers have figured out that the average consumer is more likely to buy their bottle if they can see the product. But those beautiful amber and green lipids can be deceiving.
Let's go back to chemistry class for a moment - assuming that you took chemistry (if you didn't, just smile and nod) - olive oil is liquid vegetable fat from olives. A much closer look would reveal chains of fatty acids, and an even closer look would reveal chains of carbon and hydrogen mollecules.
The problem is, that unlike water, these fat chains break up into smaller chains in the presence of oxygen - they oxidize. So when olive oil (or any oil) is exposed to oxygen, it begins to go bad and eventually becomes rancid.
Another problem is that light can also break it down. So as olive oil sits in a clear bottle, it's slowly breaking going bad. Depending on how long it's been sitting under the lights of the store, it could be bad before you buy it. And even if it's just a little rancid, once you open it and let oxygen into the bottle, the process of decomposition speeds up.
So, even though olive oil looks really nice, you should only buy it in a tin container so light has not broken it down, and unless you use an insane amount of olive oil every day and can go through a large tin quickly, you should buy small tins to lessen the amount of time the oil would have to break down in the presence of oxygen.
How can I tell if olive oil has gone bad
I once went into a fine food store (I won't mention which one) where a guy - let's call him Johnny - was demonstrating a variety of fine olive oils to customers at the store. He soaked a crouton in fine olive oil and passed it to a customer who bit into it and said, "Ooh, it's like, spicy!" To which he replied, "Yes, that little kick is what makes this oil special."
I fixed him with an crooked eye and waved my index finger at him. Don't do what Johnny-don't does. If your olive oil has any bitterness or spicy taste, it's going bad or has gone bad - it's rancid. Olive oil should be pleasant-tasting and have the aroma and taste of olives. It should not be spicy or bitter.
Consuming rancid oil can cause headaches, tiredness and feeling "flushed out". In order for your body to get rid of rancid fats, it has to use a lot of its mineral stores. This may leave you with a temporary deficiency in vitamins and minerals, and that can make you feel like crud after eating it. If you've ever eaten deep-fried foods that were fried in rancid oil, you know what I'm talking about. And bad olive oil can do the same.
What is the best olive oil?
Choosing the best olive oil is like choosing the best wine. And while some may profess a fine knowledge of which ones are the best, I say the right one is the one you like best. We all have different tastes. Some people like mild olive oils, others like strong, flavorful oils. I personally like strong-tasting Spanish and Greek olive oils that come in a tin.
What's the difference between virgin, and extra-virgin olive oil?
This explanation could get complicated, but to put it simply, the more virgin, the purer and higher quality oil you're getting. There are many ways of making olive oil. Some ways make it cheaper for the factory to produce the oil, but make the oil more acidic and less "good". So, the more virgin it is, the better processes were used to make it, and the better quality you're getting. It also has to do with how pure it is. Some olive oils can have other lower-quality oils added to it, and this would affect their overall "virginity". Virgin is supposed to mean that it's only oil from an olive, and no other oil.
If you want to know whether your olive oil is truly extra-virgin. Put some in a little bowl and stick it in your fridge for a couple of days. If it becomes crystalline (crystals form in it) it's a high quality extra-virgin olive oil. If it solidifies into a solid block, then it's a cheap, chemically-refined oil. Extra-virgin olive oil is supposed to be cold pressed (not chemically refined).
Now that you're armed with a knowledge of fine olive oils, go out there and make some salad!