Outside of salt and pepper, olive oil is probably the most ubiquitous ingredient in the American kitchen (a whopping 7,780 recipes call for it on our site alone!). Yet it's often the least understood—with the sheer number of options available at the market these days, plus all the marketing jargon on the bottles, choosing an oil can be tricky business. Here's what you need to know when buying olive oil, plus our test kitchen's top picks.
Decode the Labels
Extra Virgin: Start with two magic words: extra virgin, which is the highest grade for olive oil. To earn this descriptor, a blend has to be unrefined, meaning neither chemicals nor heat has been used in the extraction. It also has to have complex flavor, low acidity, and a fresh aroma—no taste or smell defects allowed. Stay away from bottles marked "pure," "light," or just "olive oil," as these misleading marketing terms actually mean the oil has been processed with heat and chemicals to strip away odor and flavor. If you're looking for a neutral oil, go for safflower or grapeseed instead.
Country of Origin: Look for a specific grove location, rather than broad terms like "product of" or "bottled in." For example, "product of Italy" could signify that the oil was bottled in Italy but that the olives were grown and pressed elsewhere.
Harvest Date: The fresher, the better, and hand-stamped tends to indicate higher quality.
Cold Pressed: This is just the standard extracting method; it doesn't speak to quality.
Pay Attention to Packaging
Look for dark glass bottles or opaque tins that minimize exposure to light, which speeds up flavor deterioration. And don't worry about not being able to see the color of the oil—it's not a sign of quality. Whether it's golden or green, the hue simply indicates the type of olives used and how ripe they were when pressed.
Get One to Cook with and One to Finish
As with wine, each bottle of extra-virgin olive oil tastes distinct, ranging from delicate and fruity (best with lighter foods) to robust and peppery (to pair with bolder dishes). Our test kitchen recommends keeping two kinds on hand—one for everyday cooking, another for a final splash of flavor.
Everyday Oils: Sauté away, but olive oil's smoke point is too low for high-temperature searing and frying. (Use safflower instead.) Our food editors are partial to California Olive Ranch for its subtle melon and almond notes, as well as spicy, fruity Gaea.
California Olive Ranch Everyday Extra Virgin Olive Oil, $13 for 17 oz., californiaoliveranch.com
Gaea Fresh Extra Virgin Olive Oil, $20 for 17 oz., jet.com
Finishing Oils: Perfect for salad dressings, dipping bread, or drizzling over soup. The test kitchen's tops were buttery, full-bodied Frantoi Cutrera Grand Cru Biancolilla; Castillo de Canena Arbequina, which the team loved for its nuttiness and peppery bite; and extra-grassy Laudemio Frescobaldi.
Frantoi Cutrera Grand Cru Biancolilla Extra Virgin Olive Oil, $30 for 17 oz., eataly.com
Castillo de Canena Arbequina Extra Virgin Olive Oil, $24 for 500 ml, amazon.com
Laudemio Frescobaldi, $35 for 500 ml, amazon.com