William Reavell (c) Dorling Kindersle / Getty; Graphic By Jocelyn Runice
Olive oil is one of the world’s most ancient foods and it’s one of the most common cooking ingredients. In fact, there’s probably a bottle sitting in your pantry right now. Right?!
In addition to tasting delicious, olive oil is packed with heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. But this kitchen staple is often shrouded in confusion—what’s the difference between virgin and extra-virgin? Is it OK to cook with the good stuff? And how can you even tell what the good stuff is?
“Olive oil is so versatile because there are many flavors, notes, and colors,” says New York chef and food stylist Jennifer Ophir. “In that respect, it’s like wine.” And like wine, it can be intimidating.
But don’t let intimidation stop you from partaking in this highly delicious and healthy elixir. Here’s a quick olive oil primer:
1. Think of olive oil as olive juice.
“Olive oil is a fruit juice,” explains Nicholas Coleman, chief oleologist (fancy term for olive oil expert) at Eataly NY and founder of Grove and Vine. And when fresh, that juice can be a bit intense. Similar to dark chocolate and craft beers, good, fresh olive oil has notes of bitterness.
“Fresh oils can have a pungent, lingering black pepper finish that slowly trails off in the back of the throat,” says Coleman. That amazing and sometimes intense peppery sensation is considered a marker of real-deal, high-quality olive oil. It occurs because of oleocanthal, a compound that has both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
And just like those fresh-pressed juices that have a short life span, olive oil, too, becomes foul with time.
2. Fresher is better, always.
“Olive oil is adversely affected by several factors including time passed since its pressing, heat, light, and air,” says Steven Jenkins, olive oil expert and author of The Food Life. Luckily the shelf life is a little bit longer than that of the kale, apple, and parsley blend you love—olive oil is at its best in its first two years. An older bottle probably won’t hurt you, but it slowly loses its beautiful flavors and health benefits with every passing day. To help extend the life of your olive oil, but sure to store the bottle in a dark, cool place away from direct sunlight.