Olive oils, much like wine, vary wildly in quality and flavor. Here are some buying guidelines to select the best olive oil for your baking. Once you buy your perfect bottle of green gold, find an olive oil cake recipe feature in our September/October issue!
Buyer’s Guide to Flavor:
The Holy Trinity Taste Test: Fruity, Bitter, and Pungent
- Olive fruit has a green taste, so when searching for fruitiness, think fresh, herbaceous flavor.
- Don’t shy from bitterness. Olives are naturally bitter and olive oil should reflect that astringency if it’s fresh. Much like bitter chocolate, the bitterness in olive oil will act in concert with the buttery, fruitiness to create one balanced flavor.
- Finally, taste for pungency, a peppery feeling that will settle at the back of your throat, possibly even causing you to cough. Olive oil sommeliers will often classify good, pungent olive oils by one-, two-, or even three-cough ratings.
Harvest Date Matters
- Early Season: Olive oil created from an early harvest of olives will have a significantly greener taste, higher antioxidant count, and longer shelf life than late season olive oil. Their pungent, spicy flavor is best suited for savory baking.
- Late Season: Buttery and mild, late season olive oil lends itself well to general baking and won’t over power other flavors.
Olive vs. Olive
Different olives yield different olive oils. Arbequina olives are small and distinctly sweet, producing buttery, fruity, and smooth olive oil, most suited for sweet baking. Coratina olives are larger and contain high levels of polyphenols (antioxidants) so the olive oil it creates will have that pungent, peppery finish perfect for savory uses. These are just two of a hundred varieties that producers use. Often, brands will use a cocktail of olives to produce their signature oil, but knowing which olive is predominantly used will be your best indicator of flavor without having to crack open the bottle.
Buyer’s Guide to Quality:
Extra Virgin Label
Double check to make sure the bottle label says “Extra Virgin” and not “Light Olive Oil” or simply “Olive Oil.” Products missing the distinction of “ExtraVirgin” have been processed to the point that the essential olive taste is missing.
Dark, Opaque Bottle
Sunlight strips olive oil of its nutrients, so look for glass containers, the darker the better.
“Best by” Dates
Quality olive oil should have a “best by” date, and the truly superior brands will have a “harvest date,” indicating when the olives were picked and pressed. Note that the “best by” date usually equals two years from the “harvest date,” so buy something as far ahead of that date as possible.
The Seal of Approval
There are several watchdog organizations that will grant their seal to quality olive oils. Look for seals from the PDO (European Union’s Protected Designation of Origin), USDA Organic, California Olive Oil Council, or Italy’s DOP.