It's no wonder the Greeks are known for their olive oil. Fossilized olive leaves believed to be from 50,000 to 60,000 years old have been found on the Greek islands of the Aegean. The systematic cultivation of olives trees is said to have begun on the island of Crete in Neolithic times. This tells you that Greek ties to the olive tree run very deep indeed.
In fact, Greece is one of the top three olive oil-producing countries in the world, and Greek olive oil is indisputably the finest. But before you go grab the first bottle or tin you find off the market shelf, here are a few things to consider. All oil—especially Greek olive oil—is not created equally.
Top Grades of Greek Olive Oil
Extra virgin olive oil is of exceptional quality, aroma, and taste. The oil comes from the first pressing of the olives, and no chemicals or hot water are added during processing. Acidity levels are below 0.8 percent. About 70 percent of Greece's olive oil is extra virgin.
Virgin olive oil also comes from the first pressing, but the quality is not quite as exceptional. It offers fine aroma and taste, but the acidity can be up to 2 percent so it's less mild.
Some lesser grades of olive oil are also available. "Pure" olive oil is something of a misnomer. It's actually a blend of virgin and refined oils. The label will typically say "pure" or "100% pure," and this isn't technically inaccurate. It's all olive oil, but you're not getting pure virgin oil, although the acidity level is about the same. One advantage is that this type of olive oil withstands high temperatures pretty well, so it's suitable for some types of cooking.
Stay away from olive pomace oil. The pomace is what's left of the olive after the good parts have already given their oil. This oil is made from a combination of olive residue oil and virgin olive oil and the quality is poor. It's cheap, but it should not be used for cooking, and definitely never on salads or vegetables.
Color and Clarity
Green oil is usually a product of green olives, harvested before ripening. It's highly prized in some circles. Golden-yellow olive oil is generally the product of olives that have been allowed to ripen longer. Both green and golden-yellow oils can be extra virgin oils. Olive oil can also be cloudy if it has not settled. This isn't necessarily an indication of poor quality.
Taste and Smell
Of course, you can't open a bottle or tin in the market and take a sniff or a taste before you buy olive oil, but you can tell a lot from its taste and smell after you get it home.
A bitter or sharp taste usually indicates that the olives weren't ripe yet when they were picked. Oil made from ripe olives has a mild, fruity taste. Taste is entirely a matter of preference and oils made from both unripened and ripened olives have wide appeal.
If an olive oil smells bad, don't use it. Rancidity can be caused by oxidation. This is the most common reason behind a bad smell. The oil will have an odor like dirt.
About Those Acidity Levels
The International Olive Council allows acidity of up to 3.3 percent for human consumption, but this doesn't mean you'll be happy with an oil with a level this high. Consumers should look for acidity levels under 1 percent, and even lower in an extra virgin olive oil. Acidity affects the taste and is a determinant of quality.
What It Says on the Label
Read the label to be assured of excellent quality. It should clearly state "extra virgin olive oil," and the acidity level should be at or below 0.8 percent. Look for the area or region where the oil was produced and verify that it is, indeed, from Greece.
Consider Testing More Than One Oil
You might want to buy more than one olive oil in the smallest containers available to taste and experiment until you find the one you like best. You may find that taste and price differ among extra virgin oils—and in other grades as well—from brand to brand. This can be the case even when the color looks the same, especially given that many oils come in tinted bottles. Shop smart and shop Greek!
Olive oil used for dressings, sauces and drizzling over fresh vegetables, salads and cheeses should be fine-quality extra-virgin Greek olive oil. This will allow for full enjoyment of the exceptional taste and aroma. For cooking over high heat when the aroma is degraded, consider a lower grade and less expensive oil that's better able to withstand these temperatures.