Like salt, garlic, and citrus, olive oil is one of the few key ingredients almost every chef can agree they always have on hand. It’s essential for everything from searing and frying to dressing and finishing, and can even add depth of flavor to desserts like cake and ice cream. So why don’t we pay attention to the olive oil we actually use?
While olive oil selection is on par with that of wine and coffee in many European countries, the ubiquitous appreciation for the olive hasn’t quite reached America—yet. But for home chefs who care about the ingredients they use in their kitchen, choosing a delicious olive oil that’s still affordable enough to use every day can be the difference between okay food and amazing food.
Don’t know where to start? We spoke to seven Boston-area chefs and restaurant owners about their favorite olive oils, available in stores and online. They also offered their insight into how to choose a bottle, so you’ll never be lost staring at the shelf again.
How do I choose an olive oil?
If you want to walk into a supermarket or specialty store and pick an olive oil off the shelf, you need to know where to start. “When we shop for olive oil at the supermarket, the first thing we look for is the harvest date on the back of the bottle,” says Kevin O’Donnell and Michael Lombardi, co-executive chefs and owners of SRV in Boston, MA. “Ideally you want an olive oil that is no more than six months old. Unlike wine, the quality of olive oil deteriorates after about a year, so the fresher the better.”
Executive Chef Michael Bergin at The Salty Pig in Boston’s Back Bay neighborhood explains that the fall is an exciting time to pick out a nice olive oil, because it’s when the new press is released after the harvest. “There is a considerable difference from the new release in October or November to the one released a year prior,” he explains. “The fresh oil is green, alive, and robust.”
The container’s design and packaging can also say a lot about the oil’s freshness. O’Donnell and Lombardi say to look for an oil that’s either in a tinted dark colored bottle, wrapped in foil or in a tin can. “Olive oil goes bad when it is exposed to sunlight, oxygen or heat,” they explained.
Don’t know the difference been extra virgin olive oil and the other grades? It’s a matter of degrees in acidity—the finer the oil, the less acidic it is. “If you are looking for a nice finishing olive oil (something you will consume raw), the only choice is extra virgin,” explains O’Donnell and Lombardi. Regular virgin and fine virgin oils, which are higher in acidity, are better for cooking than finishing.
Lastly, pay attention to country and region as you would with wine. “It’s important that the olives come from one country and one region within that country,” O’Donnell says. “We believe that Italy produces the best quality olive oil. Spain, Portugal and the USA would be our next choices.”
Which olive oils are the best?
Like wine, cheese, and coffee, olive oil choice is a matter of taste and preference. If you don’t know where to start, however, these eight olive oils come highly recommended by chefs and restaurant owners.
1. Tenuta di Capezzana from Tuscany
“Tenuta di Capezzana olive oil is great with almost everything,” says Chef Bergin. “Very versatile.” O’Donnell and Lombardi agree, naming Capezzana as one of their favorites. “This oil is nice and grassy and a little nutty with medium intensity. It goes great with meats, beans and grilled bread.”
2. FAM Fruttato Intenso from Campania
Chef Steve Zimei of Chopps American Bar and Grill in Burlington, MA recommends FAM olive oil from the Campania region of Italy. “I enjoy the unique citrus tones of this olive oil and its slight bitterness,” he explains. “When using really high quality ingredients, it makes for a great finishing oil as well. Plus, it can be found at Whole Foods.”
3. Ceppo Antico from Liguria
“Liguria produces "sweeter" oils that are much milder than those from Sicily, Tuscany, and Sardegna,” says O’Donnell and Lombardi. “The oil tastes more fruity and almost buttery, and it’s great in pesto and on top of vegetables.”
4. Lago di Garda from Lake Garda
“This oil comes from the north, and the olives are cultivated in the areas around Lake Garda,” explains Chef Bergin. “The area is also known for their citrus trees as well. This is a great olive oil to finish fish, cooked or raw.”
5. Olio Verde from Sicily
“This is a fruity olive oil with a nice balance with spice and bitterness,” says O’Donnell and Lombardi. “Drizzle it over vegetables, seafood or pastas. Primo D.O.P from Sicily has very similar characteristics as Olio Verde with a little more vegetal flavor.”
6. Frog’s Leap from California
Chef Daniel Bruce of the Boston Harbor Hotel recommends olive oil from the Napa Valley vineyard Frog’s Leap. “Both my wife and I strongly prefer fruitier, creamier, slightly herbal and balanced extra virgin olive oils with low acidity - less bitter, minimal pepperiness, powerful and pungent,” he says. “We tend to use olive oil for all applications in our home and rarely use butter, and have done that for decades.”
Chef Bruce, who is also the founder of the Boston Wine Festival, is known for his expertise in pairing wine with food and highly suggests olive oil sold at wineries, as they tend to have his preferred flavor profile.
7. Gran Cru Coratina from Puglia
Sisters Christine and Carla Pallotta, the executive chefs and co-owners of Boston's Nebo Cucina and Enoteca, recommend this olive oil from their family’s home of Pugliese, Italy. “Puglia produces more olive oil than any other area in Italy,” they say. “This olive oil tastes of almonds, artichokes, and fresh herbs. We use it to dress vegetables and grilled seafood.”
8. California Olive Ranch from California
While not explicitly mentioned by any of the chefs we interviewed, this popular olive oil from California Olive Ranch has been celebrated by our colleagues at The Strategist and Bon Appetit—and it’s the oil I use most in my own kitchen. Why? It’s mild and versatile but not without personality, and I can pick up a bottle from my grocery store for $12.