Olive oil is everywhere. You probably have a bottle in your pantry right now. Go ahead and check. It's there, right? Of course it is. You use it all the time and you're not alone. It's a staple of life around the globe. Humans have been using olives since the late Stone Age and olive oil has been used as a food source, medicine and an all-purpose miracle product for all of recorded history. That's why it's so alarming that you probably have no idea what you're doing with it. You, my friend, have been doing olive oil wrong for your whole life, and it's time to change that.
- You're buying too much.
"Once a bottle of olive oil is opened, it will remain fresh for only a few months,” says olive oil expert David Bensadoun, CEO of Pompeian Olive Oil. That's because olive oil is essentially a fruit juice. Like orange juice, it tastes best when it's fresh-squeezed and loses flavor the longer it sits on a shelf. If you're buying those big metal gallon containers from Costco, you better have a full dorm of college kids to feed. Otherwise, that oil's going to get old and rancid before you have a chance to use all of it. If you've got a bottle that you've been working on for over a year, toss it. Think of oil the same way you think of butter: buy enough to suit your needs, then buy more when you run out.
- You're using extra-virgin olive oil as a cooking oil, not a finishing oil.
The molecules in olive oil break down at high temperatures. The higher the quality of the oil, the lower the smoke point. For extra virgin olive oil, a.k.a. "the good stuff," you definitely don't want to use it for high-heat purposes like frying. When cooked above its smoke point, the healthy molecules in EVOO turn into very unhealthy lipid peroxides that are believed to increase the risk for heart disease and cancer. When it comes to extra-virgin olive oil, use the same advice your older brother gave you when talking to that hot girl in chemistry class: play it cool, buddy.
- What you're buying may not be extra-virgin olive oil.
In the past decade, the olive oil industry has been exposed as one of the world's most unscrupulous industries. First, Tom Mueller's 2007 Slippery Business article in The New Yorker (and subsequent book, Extra Virginity) revealed the world of olive oil as being filled with gangsters and fraud. Then, a study in 2011 by the UC Davis Olive Center reported that “the quality level of the largest imported brand names is inconsistent at best, and that most of the top-selling olive oil brands we examined regularly failed to meet international standards for extra-virgin olive oil.” Ouch. Major olive oil brands in the U.S. have done their best to reverse this negative image, but it's hard to fight statistics. Pompeian, specifically, has brought in the USDA to test their products and they're the first and only extra-virgin olive oil to get the USDA's Quality Monitored Seal. It's not hard to imagine that the other national brands will follow suit to defend their level of quality and consistency.
- You're storing it wrong.
Where do you keep your olive oil? In the pantry? The fridge? Out on your countertop? Like potatoes and ogres, olive oil should be kept in a cool, dark place. Light and heat are the enemies of olive oil, as is oxygen. Once you open the bottle, it oxidizes and the freshness clock starts ticking. The best estimates are that it'll stay good for 18 months, but depending on how you store it, the oil can go bad much sooner. The best advice for maximum freshness is to construct a temperature-controlled olive oil cave in your home – or just keep it in a cabinet.
- You're buying it at one of those fancy gourmet specialty stores.
When you think of a gourmet specialty store, you think of a place where the shelves are lined with the best of the best; a collection of curated options worth the extra money. What you may not be thinking about is the fact that the inventory of specialty stores moves much more slowly than that of supermarkets. Since you're after the freshest oil possible, you want to find an oil that was bottled recently and that may mean a trip to the grocery store instead of the specialty store. Make sure to check for best-by dates and harvest dates, which should be readily visible on the bottles that you buy. If that sounds too difficult, olive oil expert Mueller has a great list of where to buy olive oils on his website, from North America to Spain to Italy and beyond.
More olive oil on Food Republic: