A Mediterranean diet, arguably one the the healthiest diets overall, is rich both in olive oil and omega-3s from seafood. Olive oil is not only healthful but also intoxicatingly fragrant and delicious. Fresh olive oil binds with the flavors of foods and forms a bridge to your taste buds, amplifying and elevating the deliciousness of your creation to heights you never imagined. That fresh, fruit-kissed, astringent quality has made high-quality extra virgin olive oils the miracle ingredient and best friend of celebrated chefs throughout the world.
But it is important to distinguish between real and fake, good and bad, olive oils. You need to read the fine print on the label so see what you’re buying. Fake olive olive oils are plentiful in the supermarkets. They may be bottled and labeled to appear like olive oil but most likely be a blend of olive oil and other polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs). Olive oil is a monounsaturated fatty acid, and therefore, more stable and less prone to oxidation than PUFAs.
People who consume olive oil as a steady feature of their diet are less likely to develop cardiovascular disease, including stroke, high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, and high triglycerides. Olive oil has been shown to preserve the endothelial layer of blood vessels and reduce inflammation, which may be part of the way it prevents the buildup of plaque and fights hardening of the arteries.
Here are some signposts to guide you to the really good stuff, and tips to keep in mind when using it in the kitchen:
1. Buy oil in dark glass containers. Or, better yet, tins, and reject anything, even in a dark bottle, that an enthusiastic shopkeeper has displayed in a sunny window or under bright lights. It will have deteriorated within days. It cannot be said often enough that olive oil is extremely sensitive to heat and light.
2. Do judge by the price tag. Like the best wine, the best extra-virgin costs a lot. That’s because it is hand-harvested, pressed within hours of picking and milled locally, if not actually on the estate where the olives grow.
3. Be a label snob. Right there on the bottle it should state where the olives were grown, and possibly which varieties were used and where and when the oil was made. It may even give the free oleic acid content, a measure of rancidity, at the time of pressing. Producers of the best oil would never put a product on the market with a grade over 0.3%, and many find even that figure too high.
4. Fetishize freshness. A harvest date included on the label conveys a producer’s pride; the most recent harvest is best of all. And don’t be swayed by a “best by” date, which can be 18 months after bottling. Since the oil may already be a year or more old when bottled, you could be buying three-year-old oil without knowing it.
5. The phrase ‘first cold pressing’ is meaningless. It harks back to long-ago days when making oil was a slow, dirty process and the best and cleanest oil did, indeed, come from the first pressing of the olives. Today it’s a marketing ploy, like saying carrots contain no cholesterol or rice is gluten-free. To be extra-virgin, the oil must be pressed at ambient temperatures that ideally don’t go above 85 degrees Fahrenheit. There is no hot pressing of extra-virgin, and there is no second pressing, either.
6. Go ahead and turn up the heat. Because of its high polyphenolic content, extra-virgin is more stable than many other oils. The widely held belief that disaster lurks at temperatures above 250 degrees Fahrenheit is simply wrong. Extra-virgin remains stable up to about 410 degrees or a bit higher, depending on the extent of filtration (less filtered means lower temperatures). So deep-frying—best at 350 to 360 degrees—is more than acceptable. Use olive oil in baking too: Cakes gain a moist, rich texture when it’s swapped in for butter, as in the recipe for gluten-free blueberry muffins above.
7. Just don’t expect to get your daily allowance of Omega-3s. If extra-virgin olive oil displays more than a trace of Omega-3 fatty acids, that suggests contamination by another oil, most likely canola. Extra-virgin is extraordinarily good for us, but not because of its Omega-3 content. Rather, it’s all those antioxidants that have been shown to contribute to the defense against all manner of chronic diseases. You know an oil is high in antioxidant polyphenols when you can taste bitterness and pepperiness. The fact that those qualities also add complexity and intensity to whatever you’re eating seems almost—almost—too good to be true.