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Since 2004 • 

How Can I Tell if My Oil is (and isn't) Extra Virgin?

The U.S.D.A.'s standard for extra virgin is voluntary, and surveys have found that two-out-of-three bottles of olive oil labeled extra virgin really aren't.  So how do you know if your bottle is real?

The label will tell you.  Three clues to look for:

Third-Party Certification—A key criteria for extra virgin is that a qualified third party must have found that the oil has no taste or odor defects.  Who was the third party that certified the oil extra virgin?

Producer's NameExtra virgin olive oil is a handcrafted product.  The label should have the name of the producer who hand crafted the oil—not the name of the oil's importer, distributor, wholesaler, or retailer.

PriceReal extra virgin olive oil costs somewhere between $25 and $30 a pint.  Real olive oil from Europe is sold on the Euro, which today adds about a 30% premium on top of that.

 

"Extra Virgin"  .   .   .  What's It Really Mean? 

Outside of the U.S., a lot. Unfortunately inside the U.S., not so much.  The U.S.D.A., which grades and inspects food, offers only voluntary standards for olive oil.  

What should "extra virgin" mean?

Let's start with virgin olive oil. Like extra virgin, virgin olive oil is oil obtained from olives without using heat or chemicals.  The olives are pressed (technically crushed today) by mechanical means at room temperature—"cold pressed" in essence.  

However, unlike extra virgin olive oil, virgin olive oil has some taste or odor defects according to an independent taste panel. 

Another quality control item, the acidity level (which essentially measures how good or bad the olives were before being pressed) will be below a certain percentage.  In Europe, the percentage is 0.80 percent. In California, it's even lower, 0.50 percent. 

How much olive oil in the world is really, truly extra virgin?

These requirements, the "cold" pressing, no taste or odor defects, low acidity, are strict.  As a result, it's estimated that worldwide, less than 10 percent of all the olive oil produced each year qualifies as extra virgin.

All Things Olive sells only extra virgin olive oil produced in California.  We do so because an independent third party—the California Olive Oil Council—perfoms the taste tasting and chemical analysis.  Those oils that exceed the Council's standards, earn its annual seal.  These are the oils we sell.

 

How's Real Extra Virgin Olive Oil Made? 

To make their special olive oil, producers will generally pick the olives by hand so as not to bruise the skin or pulp.  The olives are then crushed and pressed within 24 hours.  Any longer, and the olives—as with any fruit—will begin to ripen or ferment, which will lower the quality of the oil.

At the mill, leaves or twigs are removed, the olives are rinsed in fresh, cold water, and then pressed at room temperature—the fabled "first cold pressing".  Using heat or chemicals will produce more oil, but at the expense of the oil's flavor and nutrients.

Extra virgin olive oil is not filtered.  Filtering extends the shelf life by removing the bits of fruit that remain in the oil. But filtering also diminishes the flavor of the oil.

Instead, extra virgin olive oil is allowed to settle or 'rest' in air-tight stainless steel tanks for a couple of months.  This allows some of the fruit particles and remaining water to settle on the bottom of the tanks.  The oil is then drawn off the top of the tanks as needed throughout the year to ensure a fresh supply of oil for bottling.  

A few producers bottle a small portion of their new oil directly from the mill.  This "olio nuovo"—new oil—is available only in late in November and early December. 

 

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At The Olive Press in Sonoma, where malaxers slowly mix the crushed olives prior to the centrifuge extracting the oil

- Tasting Notes - 
Depending on the type of olive and the date of its pressing—mid-autumn to early winter—extra virgin olive oil can taste delicate and buttery, fragrant and fruity, olive-y and peppery, or leafy green and grassy.

The Taste of Extra Virgin Olive Oil 

Each olive, just like any other fruit, offers a distinctive flavor.  Think green apples and red apples.  Olive oil producers can make their oil using a single variety of olive, or they can blend a variety of olives to create a unique flavor.  Although many try to replicate the oils being produced in Europe, many others will blend to produce very distinctive oils.

The time of the year that an olive is picked and pressed will also affect the flavor of the oil.  Olives are picked in California beginning in mid November and continuing through to late January.  The olive typically starts green, and as it ripens, it changes color, moving from green-yellow, to red, to purple, all the way to black.  When pressed, green olives produce a much more pungent and robust oil than black olives. 

The ripest olives can be pressed to produce a mild and delicate olive oil that's often used as a substitute for butter.  You get the healthful attributes of olive oil, without a strong olive flavor.  This type of oil is ideal on toast or bagels, for scrambling eggs, or dressing fresh peas or potatoes.

The next notch up in the flavor category is the "fragrant and fruity" olive oil.  This oil is most often pressed from varieties that are almost, but not quite, fully ripe.  This category is a good choice to serve with green salads and steamed vegetables. 

The next category, "olive-y and peppery", is generally produced from olives that are still somewhat green  This type of olive oil—often referred to as a Tuscan-style—goes great on a crusty piece of bread, as a simple sauce for pasta, or grilled vegetables. 

The last category is leafy green and grassy oil.  This oil comes from olives, Spanish or Italian, that are pressed earlier in November.  They have a characteristicly strong olive flavor and peppery finish, which is great for salmon, tuna, lamb, minestrone soup, or other robust dishes—the oil's flavor will come through!

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- Making The Grade -

Oil Quality
Taste/Odor Defects

Free Acidity Level
(Oleic Acid per 100 gms.)

Extra Virgin

None

California - 0.5% maximum; Europe - 0.8%

Virgin

Some

2.0% maximum

Refined

Refining removes most flavor/odor

0.3%

Pomace

Unfit for eating

More than 3.3%

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How's the Other "Extra Virgin" Olive Oil Made? 

Most often, the "extra virgin" olive oil you find in the supermarket today is an industrially-produced product that has been heavily processed.  The producers are after two things—as much oil as they can possibly get from each olive, and a shelf stable product (who's ever tossed out a bottle of olive oil from their cupboard?).

Pressing olives without using chemicals extracts less than 25 percent of the potential oil in an olive.  By using petroleum solvents such as hexane, however, the processor can get almost all the potential oil in an olive.

But .  .  .  after producing the oil in this method, the processor must then follow these steps: 

Bleaching—Eliminates any pigments left in the oil.

Degumming—Degumming removes the free fatty acids and small quantities of fruit and proteins and other substances that contribute to extra virgin olive oil's instability oil during high-temperature cooking.  After degumming, an olive oil will have a higher "smoke point".

Deodorizing—Eliminates any remaining natural substances that can cause an oil to go rancid, thus prolonging its shelf life.

Hydrogenation—Adding hydrogen prevents oxidation or aging of the oil.

Refining—An alkaline substance (often caustic soda) is added to transform the oil's fatty acids into soap, which is then extracted from the oil via centrifugation.

Anti-oxidation—Synthetic vitamin E is added to further prolong shelf life.

Finally, after this processing, what remains is an almost clear liquid with little flavor, aroma, or healthful properties. To make the oil look green, as well as to add some taste, some producers will add a bit of real extra virgin olive oil.  Others will often add chemicals and artificial flavors, such as chlorophyll and beta carotene.


A Word about European Olive Oil

The most authoritative sign to look for in buying olive oil from European producers is the European Union's denominations of origin program.  This is a strict labeling policy that means a certain product comes from a specific geographical area, and was produced under a rigorous set of clearly defined standards that have historically been used to produce the product.  Think Chianti or Champagne or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. 

Depending on the country, real extra virgin olive oil produced in Europe will carry its country's designations of origin.
 Some examples are:

France—Appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) 

Italy—Denominazione di Origine Protetta (DOP)

Spain—Denominación de Origen (DO)
 


Given the current premium of the Euro over the American dollar, authentic extra virgin olive oils from Europe will also be much more expensive than the other "extra virgin" olive oils on the shelf.  The average price is between $30 and $40 a pint.  But they will be the real deal.

A word to the wise, olive oil labels that say "Imported from Italy" usually mean that the olive oil was shipped to an Italian port from a country with lower labor costs.  It is then bottled by an Italian company.  The tip-off is that the label also will mention that the olives used in the pressing came from a variety of countries, such as Tunisia, Turkey, or Spain.