08/30/2012 05:33 pm ET Updated Oct 30, 2012

What's in a Name: How to Buy Quality Olive Oil

Extra virgin, cold-pressed, first-pressed, stone-pressed, unfiltered, low acidity... The lexicon associated with olive oil is confusing, for sure. Some of these terms are important to understand, but some are not helpful to the goal of consumers. In this article, I will break down the vocabulary so you can focus on the pure, wonderful taste and not get bogged down in heavy words.

First, a quick lesson on how olive oil is made. It all begins with ripe healthy olives carefully picked from the tree, then transported to the mill within a maximum of 10 hours (many commit to four hours or less). Once the oil is extracted in a clean mill, it is placed in large silos to allow the remaining olive sediment to settle. After a couple of months, it is bottled and ready for your table. Here are the key points in the process that make for a delicious olive oil;
  • The olives must be healthy when picked -- not over or under-ripe; no freezing damage; not harmed by its nemesis, the olive fly.
  • The olives must be transported quickly to the mill, not allowed to sit and ferment
  • The mill must be clean and in good working condition

Note: sometimes a producer will siphon off some of the oil before the sediment is settled and bottle that. It is super-fresh, extraordinarily fruity and more perishable. If you seek "unfiltered" olive oil, make sure it is within eight months of harvest. We offer a Greek Olio Nuovo each March that is a customer favorite.

Once an oil is extracted, it is tested for certain components that are mandatory for the designation extra-virgin. These terms are reminiscent of biology class and, as my friend the producer of delicious Sciabica Olive Oils in California says, let's not get too hung up or confused with chemical components when what you really want is great taste.Your olive oil purveyor should know these statistics, however, and require some documentation from producers. But unless you are curious about such riveting statistics, here is a way to simplify the exploration for the good stuff.

You do want some way to ensure that the product you're buying lives up to its name and designation of extra-virgin. Why does it matter? First of all, the taste of truly fresh and well-made olive oil is beyond words - fresh, fruity, light on the tongue, and so full of flavor. Second, the benefits to your body are down right miraculous. The list is long of the health benefits of olive oil. I'll write about that another day.

Even the fraudsters know extra-virgin is important or they wouldn't put it on every bottle of who-knows-what that inhabits some bottles of so-called olive oil. However, because of the ubiquitous practice of false labeling, looking for extra-virgin on a label won't help you. When it comes down to it, you want the absolute best tasting olive oil that will make your insides sing from all the goodness. How can you find that?

First, ask for a taste. Once you've savored the taste of fresh, high quality olive oil, you'll never be able to eat your $10 bottle of flat or, worse, rancid tasting oil. When you're able to taste before buying, you will at least know you are not going home with a rancid, very old or adulterated oil.

Second, ask for a harvest date. Olive oil should be consumed within 24 months of extraction and within six months of opening your precious bottle. It can't be extra-virgin if it isn't fresh. If your purveyor doesn't know the harvest date, well... run, run to the nearest store that takes time and makes an effort to seek out the best for you. Armed with these two requests, you are more likely to take home good olive oil. And, I might add, you deserve good olive oil.

Now go boldly into the scandalous, yet delicious world of olive oil, secure that you will bring home the real deal. Savor the remarkable flavor. Let your body enjoy the health benefits. Eat some everyday to live longer and live well.

If you'd like to read more about the fraud in olive oil and -- yes, it's a sinister world of, dare I say it, oily characters -- read Tom Mueller's book Extra-Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil. It's very informative and a great read.

You can read more about the health benefits in olive oil in an article I wrote in a new digital magazine called The Essence of Spirit, Mind and Body.

Cary Kelly is the owner of Ah love Oil & Vinegar, a specialty food shop in Northern Virginia focused on artisan-crafted, natural foods. Visitors are encouraged to shop as they taste.

Ah love Oil & Vinegar can be found on