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No single phrase in the cookbook lexicon inspires more terror in me than “good olive oil.” Occasionally it’s mentioned outright in the ingredient list, but more often it’s passed over breezily in the introductory text. Royalty like Ina Garten and Marcella Hazan use the phrase, normalizing its usage so much that it appears over 100 times on NYT Cooking alone.
Rarely, if ever, is an additional explanation given about this mythical “good” olive oil. If you are anything like me, you’re doing the best that you can out here. You do not have a jug labeled “garbage olive oil” that you glug, while cackling, onto your food. You do not have an olive oil cabinet with a top shelf. You bought 1.5 liters from Costco thinking a problem was solved, an ingredient procured. But then you stumble across an otherwise fine pasta recipe and while reading the ingredient list a shockwave of anxiety ripples through your kitchen. Your peace is shattered as you stare at the bottle in your cabinet wondering “Is this one good? How would I, an idiot, even know?”
My instinct in times like this is to turn to the internet, finding that one single item to solve my problem. Alas, the internet provides no salve here. One of my go-to sources in times of uncertainty, America’s Test Kitchen, could only describe its winning bottles in a taste test of mass-market olive oil as “acceptable.” Acceptable ≠ good.
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I wanted to figure out some simple guidelines so I could once again rest easy in my shopping. For help, I asked a panel of experts: Tom Mueller, the author of Extra Virginity: The Sublime And Scandalous World Of Olive Oil; Wilma Van Grinsven, a certified olive oil sommelier and the author of The Olive Oil Masterclass; and Sascha Dhanjal Eifler, owner of Saffi Saana, which specializes in artisanal olive oils.
One simple clarification up front, helpful to me at least, is that if you’re cooking with olive oil, by all means, go with the large, affordable jug. High heat obliterates the flavor. Chances are if you’re looking at a recipe calling for a high-quality olive oil it is because the oil is being used as a dressing or condiment.
The second thing to accept is that there isn’t going to be a simple supermarket solution. “Good oil is extra virgin, which means, more or less, [it’s] fresh-squeezed olive juice,” Mueller tells me.”[This means it hasn’t] been processed, refined or otherwise chemically altered.” The problem is, particularly in the United States, the phrase “extra-virgin” is not consistently regulated. One 2011 study from UC Davis’s Olive Center found that nearly 75 percent of top-selling imported olive oil brands marketed as “extra virgin” did not meet the standards set by the International Olive Council.
This means we’re getting stale olive oil, sometimes blended with other oils. “Oil quality in the same store, under the same label, changes from month to month,” Mueller says. “No way to predict how, much less give solid advice to consumers.” He used to recommend some Trader Joe’s varieties and California Olive Ranch, but says neither has maintained their quality.
So, if there isn’t a simple name-brand recommendation to make, the third thing to accept is that determining “good” olive oil will be just as subjective as it seems. It will also require going on a bit of a journey. Dhanjal Eiffler sold me on the merits of this, recalling how, during tastings, customers will often bring up memories of simple dishes they had while traveling in Europe that stuck with them years later. “That is what premium olive oil can do to a dish,” she says. “The number one reason I am obsessed with premium olive oil is because I am a lazy cook,” she says. “I want to make an easy, quick dish that magically wows my guests, and that’s what a premium olive oil does.” Okay, sold.
So what should we be looking for? Everyone agreed on one point: Its smell. “A good olive oil smells like grass,” Van Grinsven says. “The fresher the oil is, the stronger the smell of grass will be.” Dhanjal Eifler agrees, adding, “Other common aromas are green (underripe) tomato and banana. After you take a sip of it, you should feel a pepperiness that might make you want to cough – that’s a good thing.” (She cites a European saying—“One cough is a good olive oil, two coughs is a great one”—although cautions that it speaks to European tastes, and Americans may like something lighter.) If you smell old nuts or nothing at all, you are experiencing the joyless void of a bad olive oil.
Now that you have the basic breakdown of good versus bad, you might be wondering how many oils you need. Van Grinsven recommends having two olive oils on hand: one delicate and one robust. The idea is to pair them, same as you would with wine, with a given meal. (White fish, white wine, delicate oil; herbs, red wine, robust oil.) Dhanjal Eiffler says home cooks could get by with one good extra-virgin olive oil and then a separate oil for high-heat cooking.
If you’re looking for a simple solution, Grinsven points people toward the testing she does at the Olive Oil Institute, and Dhanjal Eifler stands by her own zero-waste olive oils. She sent me a bottle of one, and it was remarkable, even for my untrained palate. It was like a garden, with a peppery cough on the back end, drizzled first over a light salad and then any vegetable I could find in the house. I ate it and immediately felt like the type of cookbook author who understands, and indeed deserves, nice things.
Ultimately, Van Grinsven’s comparison with wine is illustrative. While you can go quite deep on the subject of good olive oil, it’s not a problem to be solved, but rather an ingredient to enjoy at your own pace. The answer to the question “What qualifies as good olive oil?” is both simple and time-intensive. Spring for a decent bottle, preferably from a smaller producer, and look for the smell of grass. Repeat until you reach your own definition.
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