olive oils and other products on the shelves of a specialty store in Athens, with a small table for sampling products in front of the shelves

Greek Liquid Gold asked Greek olive oil experts about the best ways to select and preserve extra virgin olive oil to retain its optimal flavor and maximum health benefits. They shared useful advice about where to buy olive oil, what to look for as you shop, where to keep your olive oil at home, and how long its excellent flavor and health benefits can last.

Where should you buy olive oil?

Purchase extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) “from any reliable point” that keeps EVOOs in a temperature controlled environment away from excessive light, provides “accurate information about the quality aspects of each brand, variety, origin, etc., and respects the consumer,” recommends Emmanouil Karpadakis, vice president of the Exporters’ Association of Crete and marketing and area export manager at Terra Creta SA.

Buy olive oil from retail stores and trusted web sites, suggests Manolis Salivaras, MSc, panel leader of the London International Olive Oil Competition and director of Multichrom Lab (which specializes in olive oil chemical and sensory analysis). “When you buy from retail stores, olive oil has been checked by the producer, maybe by the business, and very likely by government food inspection authorities. Therefore, it is considered safe, which is very important for consumers.”

What kind of olive oil should you buy?

As Salivaras points out, “the best category is extra virgin olive oil, and it should be the first choice. However, there are tremendous differences in the sensory attributes within this category. Therefore, one particular EVOO is not enough to match the wide variety of aromas and flavors of foods. Consumers have to start pairing different oils with different foods, just like they do with wine.”

In Karpadakis’s opinion, “the dilemma of the consumer must be which extra virgin I will buy,” without consideration of lower grades of olive oil. “So my recommendation is that only a good quality extra virgin olive oil must be used in our everyday meal preparation. The difference in the cost compared to lower grades is not that important compared to the much higher health benefits” of EVOO.

When deciding which olive oil to buy, Salivaras advocates a bit of advance preparation: “looking on a company’s website is a good way to start. Check for sensory descriptions and other quality parameters.” How is the flavor characterized? More or less spicy or fruity? With aromas of fresh cut grass or tomato leaf? Hints of almond or artichoke?

The possibilities are nearly endless; if you can, try several of the different flavors and aromas that sound most appealing to you. If you are especially interested in health benefits, look for early harvest, high phenolic, spicy extra virgins with a pungency that can make you cough when you swallow them. If you want a subtler flavor, try an EVOO made from riper olives. Experiment with different olive varieties.

At the store, Salivaras reminds us, “do not forget to look for production and ‘best before’ dates.” Moreover, Karpadakis advises looking for labels that show where an olive oil is “produced and bottled” rather than just “bottled.” (An olive oil merely “bottled” in one place, for example, could have been produced in another, or it could be a mix of oils from a number of different countries.) Once you decide which olive varieties and countries of origin you prefer, and once you find EVOOs you enjoy from producers you trust, adds Karpadakis, you can look for these specifications as you shop.

One way to taste test different EVOOs at home is to pour some on your favorite dish--one type of EVOO at a time--and see how each olive oil changes the flavor of the food. Of course, you can also try the EVOOs with bread, or plain, as the experts do; sometimes specialty stores allow this before you decide which olive oil you want to purchase.

What kind and size of container should you buy?

Like most experts, Salivaras points out that “very dark glass and good quality tin cans are good choices.” Karpadakis also considers dark glass or tin containers “our first priority.” A clear glass bottle can let in the light that can damage EVOOs, unless it is enclosed in a box or a lightproof bag.

Regarding size, Salivaras contends that “the smallest is the best. However, smaller containers are more expensive.” Karpadakis reminds us that the appropriate size also “depends on the quantity we consume. We should always choose a package we’ll consume within 4-5 months.” (In the European Union, the maximum legal packaging for retail sales is 5 liters.)

What should you do with your EVOO after you’ve bought it?

Karpadakis advises that we “keep it in a dark place, at a temperature below 20 degrees Celsius (68 Fahrenheit) if possible, and away from any strong odor (solvents, cleaning items, garbage bins, etc.), since EVOO can absorb these odors and change its beautiful character. We need to remember that EVOO is extremely beneficial, but at the same time very sensitive. So we need to protect it properly” and respect it. In addition to being full of flavor, “it is the healthiest fat in the world.”

How long should you expect your EVOO to maintain its optimal flavor and health benefits after you open the container?

Karpadakis points out that “this is not a simple question to answer, since it depends on the olive oil’s quality profile, the olive variety,” and other variables. “The higher the quality of an EVOO during bottling, the longer we can keep it without having a noticeable difference.” However, he generally advises that we consume a container of EVOO within 4 or 5 months after opening. “If it is unopened and stored properly, we can use it until the Best Before date written on each package.”

Salivaras makes similar points about the significance of olive oil quality and storage conditions. For best results, he encourages the use of small containers (250 ml to 500 ml) and suggests that the slogan "‘Don't drizzle, pour!’ will ensure that you get the best possible quality until the last drop.”

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