I received samples to review. No other compensation was received, and all opinions are my own.
I am a huge fan of real extra virgin olive oil, but not too long ago I didn’t even know what a good olive oil tasted like! The number of bottles on the store shelves just confused me. There are dozens of olive oils out there, so how do you know which one to buy?
That’s why I’ve written a few tips to get you started. Plus, I’ll also share my informal tasting method, and some good olive oils to try.
How to Buy Olive Oil
- Quality olive oil is extra virgin olive oil. Any other grade, such as “pure olive oil,” may have been treated chemically to extract the oil. Stick with extra virgin olive oil, or EVOO as it’s sometimes nicknamed, and you’ll have started off on the right foot.
- Beware of olive oils blended from multiple countries. Although these olive oils may be acceptable, they are not the ideal choice for the best flavor.
- Just because the label says, “Product of Italy,” doesn’t mean the olive oil actually came from Italy. It may have been shipped into Italy from anywhere in the world, then labeled as an Italian product and exported.
- Higher price doesn’t always mean better oil. There’s a price ceiling beyond which you’re just paying for the marketing. Fantastic, world class olive oils can be purchased for $20 or less.
- Learn to really taste the oil, so you can tell the difference between the good, the bad, and the ugly.
How to Taste Olive Oil
Olive oil is like any other food, in that everyone has their own personal preferences. Personally, I gravitate toward smooth, fresh, fruity, and very balanced oils. I avoid overly buttery flavors, and hate anything that has a musty note. Some people prefer a buttery taste, or gravitate toward a bold or peppery flavor. There’s no right or wrong, but there are varying levels of quality for each flavor profile.
Not being a professional olive oil taster, I use the same skills to taste olive oil that I would use to taste wine or honey (see also my honey gift buying guide). Here’s how I do it.
- Choose a maximum of 4 to 5 oils to taste in one sitting.
- Select neutral smelling containers to taste from, such as glass or ceramic. The aroma of metal or plastic can throw off your palate.
- For a blind tasting, pour the olive oil into the tasting receptacles, make a note of which oil went in which cup, then serve without revealing the origin of the oil. (When I’m tasting by myself, I don’t bother about it being blind. I just enjoy exploring the different flavors.)
- Sniff the oil gently, then sip about a teaspoon of oil and pay close attention as it rolls through your mouth. What flavor appears first? What flavor appears in the middle? What flavor lingers after you swallow? I often make note of whether an olive oil is dominantly bitter, fruity, peppery, buttery, or vegetal (“green” or “grassy” tasting).
- Sniff and taste again, looking for more subtle flavors. Does it taste of grass, asparagus, fresh olives, bananas, or mangoes? How about almonds or wood? Watch out for unpleasant flavors, like soap or mustiness!
- Purists don’t taste olive oil with bread, but I do! Use the same type of bread for all the olive oils you’re tasting, and get a sense of how the flavors come out or change with the addition of food.
- Keep a notebook of olive oils you’ve tried, listing each oil with its aroma and flavors. It will help jog your memory at future tastings.
Great Books About Olive Oil
(These book links are Amazon affiliate links.)
There are a lot of great books about olive oil, including many cookbooks, but these two are my current favorites. Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil is an eye-opening exploration of the (sometimes shady) business of olive oil.
Virgin Territory: Exploring the World of Olive Oil is both a cookbook and an in-depth look at the growing, making, and tasting of olive oil.
My Favorite Fruity Olive Oil
After my own informal tasting, Rio Bravo Ranch Ascolana Limited Reserve was my favorite. What I liked best about this oil was its unusual and refreshing notes of tropical fruit. Rio Bravo makes fine olive oils from a number of olive varieties, all of which are worth trying.
My Favorite Peppery Olive Oil
If you’ve never had a peppery olive oil, you’re in for a treat. Katz Rock Hill Ranch Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil is a well balanced oil that finishes with a pleasantly peppery bite. A peppery taste is a natural feature of some extra virgin olive oil and doesn’t come from any additives.
My Favorite Subtle and Balanced Olive Oils
The Olive Table is a company run by a husband and wife team who harvest the oil from their family land in Greece. I was blown away by the freshness and delicacy of their oils, which include a Private Reserve EVOO and an Organic Early Harvest Single Estate EVOO. The subtlety of these oils would work well in harmony with many foods.
Smooth and Fresh Arbequina Olive Oils
Olive oils made from arbequina olives are known for their fresh and smooth taste. This is one of my favorite cultivars for baking, as the flavor of most arbequina olive oils won’t overpower a dessert.
Seka Hills Extra Virgin Olive Oil is a well balanced olive oil with lots of green flavors. A great pick with complex flavor notes, direct from California.
Smooth and mild with a sweet aroma, Oregon Olive Mill at Red Ridge Arbequina Extra Virgin Olive Oil is a wonderful choice from Oregon. It won a Silver Award at the 2014 New York International Olive Oil Competition.
Bold Extra Virgin Olive Oils
Boldly flavored olive oils are great for salads, dipping, or garnishing your favorite meat or vegetables, but are (obviously) less suited for baking.
A vintage inspired tin holds this remarkably bold Moulins de la Brague Provence Extra Virgin Olive Oil from Provence, France. Picture the sunny fields of Provence as you dip a hunk of French bread in this olive oil!
My favorite innovation in olive oil packaging is found in La Tourangelle’s 100% Organic Extra Virgin Olive Spray Oil. It makes it so easy to spritz on olive oil in just the right amount. This extra virgin olive oil is produced in Spain from Picual olives, and has an intense flavor with a peppery finish. The same variety is also available in a pourable form: La Tourangelle 100% Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil from a Greek Island
I fell in love with the story of this olive oil. Kaldi produces their olive oil on family land on the Greek isle of Lesvos, using only Kolovi and Adramytiani olives. Their olive oil is low in chlorophyll, making it a golden color rather than a green color. Choose from Kaldi Extra Virgin Olive Oil or Kaldi Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil, and don’t miss out on their incredibly flavorful and unique Greek cooking sauces while you’re at it. I made a gorgeous pot roast with their Stifado sauce!
Which olive oil would you like to try?
Do you have a favorite olive oil?
All photos are copyright of their respective holders. Featured photo by pawel 231 of FreeImages.com.
Kacey @ The Cookie Writer
You are bang on here. My sister was complaining the other day how she does not understand why people love oil and vinegar salad dressings because she hates the taste of olive oil. She probably doesn’t realize she is using cheap stuff. I have always been partial to infused olive oils, but the store where my sister-in-law purchases them recently closed 🙁
What drives me crazy is that the poor quality stuff can cost as a much as a bottle of the good stuff! It’s no wonder people get put off of olive oil after they get burned like that. What I loved about writing this article was getting in touch with producers who really care about the quality of what they produce.
Katerina @ Diethood
I had no idea! What a helpful post. Thanks so much!
I love the taste of olive oil! There’s such variety so it’s always fun tasting different ones.
Before I started tasting a lot of different ones, I never knew there could be such variety of flavor!
I used to buy really fancy olive oil but now I buy a moderately priced bottle of spanish olive oil at trader joes that is actually really good!
Trader Joe’s has some great olive oils! My favorite is the Arbequina. It’s like $5.99, which is a fantastic deal!
Sabrina @ Dinner, then Dessert
When I was in the DC chapter of my Chef Association, we had a person come do an olive oil tasting for us to teach us about the subtle differences. I love your article about it too, it is important to not just buy the first thing you see.
Fareeha - faskitchen
I love the extra virgin olive oil. It really enhances the tastes in the salad. The place I live, we get really good organic olive oils, so no complaints
Thank you, Katie, for putting together a clear and concise guide to buying olive oil. Customers ask us all the time how to choose a good oil, and what makes one oil different from another. You’ve made shopping for olive oil easier, and thank you for including The Olive Table’s extra virgin olive oils. I hope your readers will try all of the oils mentioned!
Thanks, Dianne! I really enjoyed tasting your extra virgin olive oils. It was a real treat to try so many top quality olive oils!