Extra Virgin, Extra Good
Are You Buying the Wrong Olive Oil?
In a grocery store, the assumption is that products will be labeled with accuracy — that it’s, say, Parmesan cheese, not a tub of wood pulp, in your cart. But assumptive habits can lead shoppers astray, especially in the case of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). The “extra virgin” designation is meant to be indicative of quality; but due to a lack of industry regulation, the standards to which true extra virgin olive oil is held are not enforced. Consequently, oils are labeled “extra virgin” liberally and incorrectly.
According to the International Olive Council, in order to qualify as “extra virgin,” oil can be made from nothing more than the juices extracted from crushed olives, contain only minimal traces of oleic acid, and must pass a sensory test, retaining its olive flavor and boasting a peppery finish. Oils that fail to meet the aforementioned standards are not supposed to be labeled as “extra virgin,” but there are few repercussions for manufacturers who do so anyway.
Most of the olive oil sold in America is imported from Europe, and most of that which is labeled “extra virgin” is cut with lesser-quality oils, rendering it inauthentic. A report by the UC Davis Olive Center found that the vast majority — 69 percent — of imported olive oils labeled as “extra virgin” failed to meet quality standards outlined by the International Olive Council and USDA.
Subsequent exposés into olive oil fraud, such as Thomas Mueller’s book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, have set conscious cooks on high alert, hungry for the real deal. Fortunately, the number of olive oil producers on American soil has grown steadily over the past two decades. Held to higher standards by both the USDA and regional olive oil associations, many American-made EVOOs honor the “extra virgin” designation, yielding better, more flavorful oils as a result.
Below, find five certified and award-winning extra virgin olive oils from across the United States, ranging from industry-leading artisanal producers to large-scale operations, and make your next bottle of oil American-made.
Here are some guiding principles to keep in mind when combing grocery store shelves for authentic EVOO:
Hometown pride. A bottle of high-quality olive oil will name the specific town or general region in which the oil was pressed. Favor bottles from California, Georgia and Texas, all of which are home to growing (or already robust) olive oil industries.
Harvest date, not “best by” date. Because olive oil oxidizes quickly, it doesn’t have a long shelf life. As such, it’s best to purchase oil as close to, and within one year of, its harvest date. Moreover, a bottle that lists a harvest date suggests that the manufacturer recognizes that it can be used to judge quality — proof of pride, so to speak.
Light-blocking packaging. Dark glass bottles and tins protect against light exposure; light exposure increases oil’s rate of oxidation.
Regional certifications. Stamps from an organization like the California Olive Oil Council or a recent olive oil competition suggest a high-quality product. The North American Olive Oil Association and the International Olive Council have certification programs, but, according to olive oil expert Thomas Mueller, their standards aren’t always up to snuff. Similarly, a USDA Certified Organic label is a plus, but isn’t indicative of authentic EVOO.
Katz Farm Chef’s Pick Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil
A pivotal figure in the American olive oil movement, Katz Farm has been producing premium, artisanal olive oil in California’s Suisun Valley since the early ’90s. Abiding by traditional harvest methods and providing ample space between olive trees, Katz Farm produces some of the highest-quality olive oil grown on American soil — and has more than 30 gold medals to prove it.
Region: Suisun Valley, California
Tasting Notes: grassy with hints of artichoke and fennel; nuances of herbs, sweet spice and fresh-cut grass
The Olive Press Mission Extra Virgin Olive Oil
In addition to being the first olive mill in Sonoma County, California, The Olive Press also boasts the title of most-decorated olive oil producer in the country. In addition to EVOO varieties ranging from buttery to bitter, the mill boasts a roster of co-milled olive oils, made by pressing olives with citrus or peppers, thereby fusing, rather than infusing, the oils extracted from each.
Region: Sonoma, California
Tasting Notes: bright and green with a rich, buttery mouthfeel
Texas Hill Country Olive Co. Sola Stella Extra Virgin Olive Oil
A robust wine industry in California’s Napa Valley preceded the region’s olive oil renaissance, and recent developments in the Texas Hill Country suggest that America’s second most popular wine-tourism region is following a similar path. Texas Hill Country Olive Company is among the area’s foremost olive oil producers — and the award-winning, single-varietal Sola Stella is one of Texas’ finest.
Region: Dripping Springs, Texas
Tasting Notes: red apples and green artichoke hearts; mild, nutty and smooth
California Olive Ranch Arbequina Extra Virgin Olive Oil
As the largest producer of extra virgin olive oil in the U.S., California Olive Ranch has pioneered innovative planting and harvesting methods with the goal of making high-quality olive oil accessible to as many people as possible — and at an accessible price point. With 6,000 acres of high-density orchards, the company is responsible for producing a whopping 60 percent of all olive oil made in California. California Olive Ranch grows three varieties of olives — spicy Koroneiki, fruity Arbequina, nutty Arbosana — and produces everything from single-variety bottles to premium blends and all-purpose, everyday oils.
Region: Sacramento, California
Tasting Notes: tropical fruit and fresh artichoke
Georgia Olive Farms Chef’s Blend Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Having harvested the first olives east of the Mississippi since the 1800s, Georgia Olive Farms is credited with reviving Georgia’s olive oil industry. Boasting 250 acres (up from 20 acres in 2009) lush with three varieties of olives, the mill adheres to a rigid production process: all of its oil is milled within 24 hours of harvest, minimizing oxidation and maximizing freshness and flavor.