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The only thing more overwhelming than choosing a wine might be choosing the right olive oil.
These days, most supermarkets have shelves stocked with the stuff. There are “grassy” oils, organics, cold-pressed, and “pure” ones, not to mention all of the countries of origin to consider. It’s enough to make anyone panic and reach for the one with the coolest-looking label.
But trust us when we say it’s well worth the time to select a high-quality bottle.
As the foundation of so many dishes, olive oil sets the flavor stage for meals you eat every day. Plus, with all that evidence on how great the Mediterranean diet is, it’s probably time to splurge on an olive oil you love.
So how exactly does one approach the oil aisle to make the best decision?
Extra virgin olive oil (and cold-pressed olive oil)
The highest grade of oil is extra virgin (which Rachael Ray famously dubbed “EVOO”). This is definitely the grade you want for serving straight up-and for recipes where olive oil plays a central role — think salad dressing, dips for bread and vegetables, and olive oil cakes.
According to the USDA, extra-virgin olive oil is a natural product with no more than 0.8 grams of oleic acid per 100 grams and no sensory defects.
Even though only some brands advertise their oils as “cold-pressed,” all olive oils actually need to be cold-pressed to qualify as extra virgin. Basically, the term just means that the olives stay below 86 degrees throughout the pressing process, since higher temperatures can change the taste.
A common contention is that extra virgin olive oil isn’t as well-suited for cooking because it has a relatively lower smoke point compared to oils like avocado or grapeseed. However, many studies suggest that this isn’t the case, in part because extra virgin olive oil is not refined.
Virgin olive oil
The next highest grade is virgin olive oil. It’s also unrefined, but has a slightly higher level of acidity than extra virgin. You can still use this for similar dishes as above or with bread, and tends to be a bit more affordable than extra virgin varieties. If olive oil isn’t the star ingredient, this is a great grade to go for.
Pure (aka refined) olive oil
Another step down the grading ladder is “pure” or “refined” olive oil, which is often also labeled as just plain “olive oil.”
Basically, these oils have undergone processing or chemical treatment and are usually mixed with a bit of virgin olive oil at the end. Because they’re usually lighter in flavor, they’re the best type to get for eggs or stir fries.
Pomace olive oil
Occasionally, you might come across something called “pomace” olive oil, which is made from leftover olive pulp.
It always involves chemical solvent and heat, and is generally not considered olive oil for those reasons. In fact, pomace oil has been the center of controversy for dishonest labeling practices in several countries, including Spain and Britain, though it’s sometimes used for deep-frying.
There are a bevy of different terms — “made in,” “product of,” “imported by,” “packed in” — that can indicate the origin of a bottle of olive oil.
Single-source olive oils are pressed, packed, and exported from the same country.
Olive oils that are a mix of olives from multiple countries or pressed and packed in different places will list all of the countries of origin. These don’t necessarily result in a lower-quality olive oil, but generally, oils packed in a different country than where the olives were harvested tend to be less fresh than single-source oils.
As to which country makes the best olive oil, there’s not a clear-cut answer.
Italy, Spain, and Greece are probably the three most well-known, though Croatia and Turkey have also produced some of the highest rated oils in recent years.
In the United States, California churns out some great olive oils, though states like Texas, Arizona, and Georgia are also growing suppliers.
Cultivar, climate, olives’ ripeness, and various other factors influence an oil’s taste.
In general, pure Spanish olive oil tends to be more “fruity,” while pure Italian oil leans towards “grassy.” Oils from Greece are usually more flavorful and peppery. Still, even within these categories, there’s tons of variation.
Though there aren’t any mandatory olive oil certifications (which many people in the olive oil business say is a problem), there are a few voluntary ones that are always good to keep an eye out for.
For varieties from Italy, look for labels that say “100% Qualita Italiana,” a brand created by the Italian consortium of olive oil producers called Unaprol.
California oils can be certified as extra virgin by the California Olive Oil Council (COOC), and the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA) tests supermarket oils against the standards set by the International Olive Council.
OK, so now you’ve got an overview of grades, nationalities, and certifications. But these aren’t the only indicators of quality (or flavor). When push comes to shove and it’s time to grab a bottle from the store, how do you snag a really good one?
If possible, sample before you buy. (Some higher-end grocers will let you sample in store if you ask.)
A good-quality olive oil will have more complex layers without a greasy aftertaste. It also just comes down to preference. Since olive oils range from sweet to bitter to herby, sampling will ensure that you’re choosing a flavor to your liking.
If you can’t sample the oils, consider buying smaller quantities (which will mean you end up with fresher oil anyway). Date and freshness are crucial. Remember, olive oil is basically just olive juice, so it shouldn’t be kept for a long period of time.
You can also look for a harvest date of no more than a year prior. And dark bottles help keep out sunlight and preserve freshness.
Wondering which brands stand above the rest? We say you can’t go wrong with the following purveyors.
If you’re looking for an everyday extra virgin olive oil, California Olive Ranch is a favorite of professional chefs and home cooks alike, and often comes out on top in blind taste tests.
Costco’s Kirkland Signature Organic has passed blind extra virgin standards tests, and is probably one of the most affordable oils out there. And if you’d rather a single-source product, Graza olive oils are never blended.
At a slightly higher price point, KATZ Farm, a producer in California, is a favorite of several cookbook authors.
Finally, there are times when you really want to splurge — maybe for that beachside vacation where you’ll be eating tons of fresh seafood and bread, or when you’re looking for a special housewarming present that isn’t wine or dish towels.
Oils from Almazaras de la Subbética, an Andalusian producer that’s one of the world’s best regarded olive oil names, are a top choice for occasions like these.
For those who love spicier and more bitter oils, Il Tratturello from Molise, Italy, is a great option, and for housewarming gifts, the beautifully designed Wonder Valley oils from Joshua Tree will impress any host.
Chefs and culinary experts will all have strong views about the best olive oil for any dish, but in your own home kitchen, your opinion is the one that counts!
Don’t be afraid to widen your scope to sample olive oils of various grades and from various parts of the world. You never know when you’ll find a new favorite.