An Expert’s Guide to Selecting—and Savoring—Olive Oil

Produced in different regions, using different methods, and from different fruits, olive oil is a deliciously nuanced ingredient. To learn more about the intricacies of olive oil—from the various flavor profiles to tips for optimizing your tasting experience—we sat down with Jessica McCleary, owner of Park City, Utah-based Mountain Town Olive Oil, to discuss how it can elevate your culinary endeavors. Here is her expert advice.

Opt for olive oil in lieu of other oils. “Taste is the most obvious difference between olive oil and store-bought vegetable oils,” McCleary says, noting that vegetable oils are flavorless. But there’s another reason to reach for the olive oil over its vegetable counterparts: vegetable oils are usually extracted using petroleum-based chemical solvents, and then must be highly refined to remove impurities; along with the impurities, the refining process removes taste, color, and nutrients. Extra virgin olive oils, by contrast, are not processed or refined. Rather, they are fresh pressed from the fruit of the olive tree, leaving the color, taste, vitamins, and nutrients intact.

Know the different flavor profiles. McCleary compares olives to grapes, in that different grapes produce different wines. Olives are grown all over the world, primarily in Mediterranean climates, and depending on the type of fruit and the location, each olive will produce a different kind of oil. Some of the characteristics oils are judged on include fruitiness, bitterness, and pepperiness. On the whole, Italian olives tend to be more peppery and bitter, while Spanish olives are usually more balanced, and Greek olives are inclined to be fruitier.

When in doubt, choose extra virgin. There are four levels of olive oil, each determined by the heat at which the olives are pressed to extract the oil. The first and most pure, extra virgin olive oil (EVOO), is pressed at a cold temperature, thereby ensuring that the natural health benefits remain intact. The higher the temperature of pressing, the lower the antioxidant levels and oleic acids, which assist in fighting aging diseases of the brain. The subsequent oils, with increasing heat at each pressing, are known as virgin olive oil, olive oil, and light/pure olive oil.

Sample liberally to learn your preferences. In order to determine which kind of extra virgin olive oil you like, you’re going to have to engage your taste buds. McCleary’s preferred approach is to put a little bit of oil in a small cup and smell it. Next, take a small sip and breathe in a small breath over the oil so the flavor will expand on your tongue. “If there’s a burning sensation on the back of the throat after swallowing, that’s the anti-inflammatory property in EVOO,” McCleary notes. If the oil is high quality, your mouth should feel clean. If your mouthfeel is greasy and the taste is rancid and medicinal, that’s a sign the oil is of poor quality or has gone bad.

Make EVOO a kitchen staple. You can use olive oil for almost every kitchen application, from salad dressings, marinades, sautéing vegetables, and cooking eggs, to tossing in pasta, cooking meats, baking, and even on ice cream, McCleary notes. “Mild intensity oils are great for baking or everyday cooking, while medium intensity oils are ideal for sautéing and roasting,” she advises, adding, “I choose a more robust oil for salad dressings and finishing dishes.” You know your palate best, so ultimately, go with what tastes good to you. While there has been some debate over whether or not to cook with EVOO, McCleary encourages her customers to use it with abandon. “A high-quality oil will have smoke at a temperature of 350-400 degrees. Not only that, but the polyphenols in extra virgin olive oil help prevent toxins that form when you heat any kind of fat,” she says.

Follow proper storage protocol. Light and heat will cause your oil to degrade quickly, so McCleary suggests you choose bottles that are dark to shield the olive oil from UV rays and light, and keep your oil in a well-controlled, dark, cool place, like the pantry. Also, olive oil has a shelf life, and according to McCleary, the highest quality olive oils are only good for about a year or 18 months after they’ve been pressed, so it’s good to know your oil’s crush date. After a year or so, you’ll start to lose the fresh taste that is the oil’s hallmark, and the Vitamin E content will begin to naturally decrease. McCleary says that’s often hard to come by the date when an oil was pressed with large purveyors, so consider seeking out an expert at your local olive oil store who can help you identify producers that offer that information. You can also choose to purchase smaller bottles, so it’s more likely you’ll use the contents within a few months.

TSG Tip 346  from Jessica McCleary, owner of Mountain Town Olive Oil in Park City, Utah. Mountain Town Olive Oil is featured in The Scout Guide Park City.