1. Only buy oil labeled extra-virgin. This is not a guarantee that the oil will be the best, but at least it will probably not be among the worst. Other kinds of just plain “Olive Oil” and “Light Olive Oil” are refined oils and, like vegetable oil, while they’re not bad for you, they are not very interesting.
2. Avoid anything in a clear glass bottle, no matter how pretty and enticing the label. Light is the great enemy of olive oil and the oil inside will likely have lost most of its flavor and aroma. Extra-virgin olive oil should be packaged in dark glass bottles or, better yet, opaque tins.
3. The term “first cold pressing,” although widely used, is redundant. By legal definition, extra virgin oil must come from the first (usually the only) pressing, which must be accomplished with no added heat, i.e., at ambient temperatures no greater than around 80º Fahrenheit.
4) Read the label. Even if it’s written in Italian, French, or Spanish you can probably figure out enough to recognize harvest dates and “use by” dates. The former is very instructive--the finest producers always put the harvest date proudly on their olive oil; the use-by date can be a little deceptive since it is usually 18 months from bottling, rather than from harvest. The oil might already be a year or two old when it’s bottled, hence the use-by date could be 2 ½ to 3 ½ years after the harvest.
5) Unlike wine, extra-virgin olive oil does not improve with age. Fresher is better, and right out of the mill, olive oil is a fabulous experience. Fresh oil may have unexpectedly assertive flavors of bitterness and pungency that sometimes override the fruitiness. These challenging flavors are treasured by connoisseurs because they indicate high quality, and by nutritionists because they’re evidence of lots of healthful polyphenols. You too can learn to love them. After all, you probably didn’t like coffee much the first time you tried it, did you?
6) Light is the enemy and so is heat so keep your precious bottles in a cool, dark environment. I have a couple of tin containers next to my stove, each one of which holds about 1 ½ cups of oil, enough for a couple of days in my kitchen. They get refilled from the bulk of my oil, which is kept in a cupboard in an unheated pantry.
7) Use it up! And don’t be afraid to cook with extra-virgin. It is perfectly stable up to about 420ºF . Since The Joy of Cooking says 360ºF is optimum temperature for deep-fat frying, I use extra-virgin comfortably for almost all my cooking. And because it doesn’t get better with age, I use last year’s oil for cooking, and this year’s fresh oil for garnishing.
8) Use it liberally! Learn to love a hot baked potato, cracked open and dribbled with lots of the freshest finest oil you can buy, a sprinkle of fleur de sel, a grating of Talicherry pepper, and you’ll enter gastronomic heaven. Or try my favorite Catalan breakfast—grilled slices of rustic bread with a ripe tomato crushed into the top, then salt and pepper and a glug of extra-virgin over it all.
9) Buy from trusted retailers who know what they’re doing, i.e., know how to handle extra-virgin olive oil to maintain quality. I find the best quality olive oil from on-line sources. Here are a few: www.olio2go.com, retail store at 8400 Hilltop Road, Fairfax, Va.; (703) 876-4666.
• www.gustiamo.com, mail order only; (718) 860-2949.
• www.dipaloselects.com, retail store at DiPalo Fine Foods, 200 Grand St., New York, N.Y.; (212) 226-1033.
• www.markethallfoods.com, retail store at Rockridge Market Hall, 5655 College Avenue, Oakland, Calif.; (510) 250-6000.
• www.cortibrothers.com, retail store at 5810 Folsom Blvd., Sacramento, Calif.; (916) 736-3814.
• www.zingermans.com, retail store at 422 Detroit St., Ann Arbor, Mich.; (734) 663-3354.