What exactly does "good" olive oil mean?

Photo by Jennifer Fields

Jennifer Fields is a new food writer to TaylorEason.com, who will be investigating the mysteries of food, ingredients and how to cook with them. A culinary school grad, she brings a unique perspective to the limitless world of food. Read her bio.  – Taylor

Olive oil. It’s something I simply cannot live without. I use it on a daily basis, practically morning, noon and night. It’s the secret to the scrumptious omelet that starts my day, a perfect partner to marry with pita bread for an afternoon snack and a brilliant touch to a dinner salad.

When browsing through recipes or watching cooking shows on TV, I’ve noticed something about the mention of olive oil. For example, on the Food Network’s “Barefoot Contessa” with Ina Garten, when it comes time to utilize a drizzle, splash or heaping amount of olive oil, Ina precedes to say, “use some good olive oil”. It got me thinking, what exactly does she, or anyone for that matter, mean by good olive oil. Is it the flavor of the oil? The region where it comes from? Does the price point determine if an olive oil is good?

My curiosity sent me on a mission. I decided to do a little research and figure out, once and for all, what good olive oil really is.

For kicks I went straight to Ina’s site to see if she actually explained it herself. There it was, the first on her list of questions found on her website: What is “good” olive oil? The answer she gave was still a bit too vague for me, and simply stated the brand she uses: Ilio Santo from California. She goes on to say that she likes it because it is light and flavorful and perfect for cooking, salads and dipping bread in. That didn’t satisfy my thirst for knowledge. It was time to venture a little more.

Some quick searches online led me to some information about the components of good olive oil, which were:

  • The best is a blend of oil from a mixture of red-ripened (not green and not fully ripened) oils and a smaller portion of green olives.
  • Cold-pressed olive oil is good to look for as it’s a chemical-free process and produces a higher quality of olive oil with lower levels of acidity.
  • Usually, olive oils with less acidity are best, so check for around one percent of acidity, check the grade of oil, volume and country of origin. (Note: when I actually went to look at labels, this information, particularly the acidity level, was not present on the majority of bottles.)

A start, but even some of that information may be up for debate.

I headed out locally to browse some olive oil aisles around town and decided to cruise over the bridge to St. Petersburg, Florida and visit Mazzaro’s Italian Market. It’s definitely a good spot for variety, but can be a bit intimidating to a novice. I arrived during lunch, which probably wasn’t the best time to go in for some olive oil education (they were incredibly busy) so decided I’d grab a bite then follow up with a phone call later on.

Via phone I spoke with Lewis, an employee of the store and someone who was recommended for me to speak with about olive oil.

“Good olive oil is like good wine,” he said. “Like wine comes from a single vineyard, and is picked at the right time, it’s very similar with olive oil.” He went on to say that the more expensive bottles are usually those that’s olives came from one olive “grove” vs. a blend of olives that are not grown in the same grove (a vineyard is to wine grape trees, as a grove is to olive trees). He also mentioned that cold-pressed and unfiltered varieties are usually the best.

I headed back over to south Tampa and happened to stop into Datz Deli for dinner. Datz has a great little market where it sells a slew of specialty gourmet food items, one of them being olive oil. I asked if there was someone specialized in talking about olive oils, and was led to Heather Anne Stalker. Stalker is Director of Fun for Datz, is a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America Hyde Park in New York, and best of all, had just returned from a trip to Italy where she spent some time exploring the Italian olive groves.

“Not commercial oil. Not the 5 liter jug at the grocery store,” was Stalker’s first response to my question of what is good olive oil. And, like Lewis, she referenced olive oil’s similarity to wine.

“Olive oil is a lot like wine, it has varietals, it’s heat sensitive, it’s light sensitive, it’s impacted by the terroir,” she said.

A little more clarification of her thoughts on what good olive oil is, “Good olive oil means they aren’t cooking with it,” she said. She continued to explain the myriad of olive oils, and the flavors that you can get from them. From buttery, to peppery and even grassy notes, good olive oil is that which shouldn’t be used to actually cook with. As heat and light are enemies of the oil, using it to cook at a higher heat in a frying pan, for example, will only kill the oil’s unique flavor.

Photo courtesy of Heather Anne Stalker

“Good olive oil is best for dipping, drizzling, for use in vinaigrettes and tossing with fresh vegetables. It’s best used for anything that’s going to allow you to really taste the nuances of the oil,” she explained. She continued to say that in Italy, olive oil is used as a condiment. Instead of salt and pepper sitting on the table, patrons are greeted by a few varieties of olive oil to enhance the flavor of their dish. Stalker also prefers unfiltered varieties, and says that cold-pressed really doesn’t mean anything. “All extra virgin olive oil is cold pressed.”

When it comes down to it—and this is also very similar to wine—choosing good olive oil is really determined by your own unique palate. And those looking to increase their knowledge of what varieties they like are in luck. Many retailers and specialty gourmet shops, such as Datz and Mazzaro’s, often host olive oil tastings. And when done correctly, don’t think you’ll be completely loading up on bread during the tasting.

“You can’t really taste the full flavor of the oil when you dip bread in it,” says Stalker. Anyone venturing to a tasting may find themselves sipping and slurping their future favorite olive oil straight from spoons or small bowls.

It’s nice to have a few guidelines to look for, but at the end of the day, trust your own palate, explore the myriad of olive oils that are out there, use them for different applications and even host your own olive oil tasting. You never know what you’ll discover. And when you do, just remember that if the flavor suites your palate and usage, you’ve found your good olive oil.

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No comments yet to What exactly does “good” olive oil mean?

  • I received an inquiry via email from a reader and thought I’d post my reply here in the event that anyone else had the same questions. Cheers, ~Jennifer

    Brands:

    There are just so many, but here are a couple of suggestions:

    – Badia a Coltibuono, which I did see at Datz as well a Castellano’s Market in S. Tampa off of Henderson.

    – Olio Santo Olive Oil from California. William-Sonoma carries it, or at speciality markets like Mazzaro’s or even Rolling Pin Kitchen Emporium may carry it.

    Where to buy ideas:

    – Mazzaro’s Italian Market, St. Petersburg

    – Catellano’s Pizza & Market, S. Tampa

    – Rolling Pin Kitchen Emporium, Brandon

    – Datz Deli, S. Tampa

    Classes:

    On a quick search I don’t see any currently, but keep an eye out on class calendars for venues like the Rolling Pin Kitchen Emporium, Datz Deli, Foodies, Publix Apron’s Cooking Classes, Whole Foods, etc. Also, the Wednesday Tampa Tribune’s Flavor section includes a foodie calendar of events on area classes.

  • Enrique Espasito

    Good means not disgusting.
    First cold press is a minimum.. after that.. buyer’s choice

  • Enrique Espasito

    after reading, you have no suggestions. I would recommend starting with olive oils that are first cold pressed (meaning they are pressed once). This only applies to oils from europe. After this, you must research yourself on what is quality and not. The article above has it’s foci on market to purchase the oil. Mazzaro’s is good, just as much as an olive oil purchased at any common market. Above 1st cold pressed oils, you need to delevop your own tastes..

  • Jennifer

    Hello Enrique,

    Thank you for you comments. You are right, in the end it is up to each individual’s tastes. My hope is that readers wanting to begin to learn about olive oil find a good place to start here. It’s a big world for those who want to explore olive oil. Enjoy!

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