For thousands of years, olive oil was simple — sunburn? Olive oil. Light a lamp? Olive oil. Roast some beef? Olive oil.
Yet in recent years, the narrative around olive oil has become filled with half-truths, confusion and industry watchdogs that pay very close attention to what is said about the multi-billion-dollar global industry.
And it’s just getting bigger and more confusing. The industry is projected to be worth about $18 billion by 2030, propelled by the skyrocketing popularity of Mediterranean cuisine and attributed health benefits of the oil, according to Business Fortune Insights.
Here in Long Beach, brothers Josh and Nate Mardigian have founded Nuvo Olive Oil. They got into the olive oil business after discovering their family owned a 125-year-old olive grove up north. No one was taking care of the trees, and they even considered razing them to sell the land, but the brothers took up the mantel to restore the farm.
They met award-winning Italian master miller Gianni Stefanini and started the journey of producing their own award-winning olive oil and olive oil-based products. Part of the journey has been educating customers on those many confusions surrounding the product. Their tasting room can be found in Lakewood Village.
I spoke with the Mardigians and experts in the industry to clear the air and understand how it’s made and how to know what to buy.
What it is
Olive oil is the fat separated out from olive paste and water. Olives are a fruit, which means they’re a seasonal product, usually harvested roughly between October through January, with some variations depending on climate, location and, of course, type of olive.
There’s a lot of discussion in the culinary world and the diet/health world about seed oils (a topic for further discussion in a future Demystifying). While the seed is an important element in the process of making olive oil, it is not a “seed oil.” The paper thin skin of the olive, the meat and pit (bone) are all necessary to make the oil.
Extra virgin olive oil, commonly known as EVOO, is the highest category of virgin oil, which means it’s been processed mechanically (not chemically) without any heat and complies with a minimum standard.
EVOO is evaluated by three attributes: fruitiness, bitterness and pungency. To be considered “extra virgin,” oil must meet both a chemical and sensory (taste, smell, etc.) standard.
These standards, however, can be confusing—and can vary between locations, said Javier Fernandez-Salvador, executive director of UC Davis’ Olive Oil Center.
In California, the majority of olive oil produced in the state is extra virgin. However, other parts of the world also produce virgin olive oil, refined olive oil, pure olive oil and so on.
How it happens
The Mardigians gave me some insight into how their Nuvo Olive Oil is produced. They begin collecting their olives up north at sunrise.
“As soon as you pick (the olive), it starts oxidizing,” Nate Mardigian said. For producers, that means the time is ticking to get oil into bottles and into customer hands as soon as possible—olive oil is not a product that gets better with age.
Their miller, Stefanini, uses a machine to separate the paste and water from the fat after they’ve been crushed and cleaned.
Unfiltered olive oil could look cloudy, and there are plenty of debates among producers on the different schools of thought for both the filtered and unfiltered approaches. For the Mardigians, the extra step (and money) it takes to filter their oil is worth extending its shelf life.
What to buy
The best way to buy olive oil is to read the fine print. First, look at the harvest date if one is listed, not an expiration date.
The California Olive Oil Council says extra virgin is best used within 18 to 24 months of the harvest. Nuvo Olive Oil does not sell their oil 18 months past their harvest date (although they’ve never really encountered an issue of having bottles in stock past 18 months of harvest, they said). Nuvo bottles range from $12.99 to $39.99, depending on size.
Their bottles have a California Olive Oil Council seal, which means their oil has been tested chemically by a third-party lab and passed, and a sample was also sent to the council for a sensory evaluation. Certain extra virgin olive oils from brands including Kirkland Signature Single Estate, Cobram Estate, and Williams Sonoma were also granted seals. The full list can be found here.
Cobram Estate’s classic extra virgin olive oil retails at $17.99, while Williams Sonoma’s is $38.95 for the same size.
To receive a seal from the North American Olive Oil Association, oils must be must be tested and met the International Olive Council standard for olive oil (again, standards vary). The seal can be found on extra virgin olive oils and other types of olive oil and include familiar brands like Filippo Berio, Goya and Whole Foods brand oils.
Once the bottle is open, how long it will last will again depend on various factors. The North American Olive Oil Association gives olive oil a short timeline, suggesting to only buy bottles you can finish within eight to 10 weeks after opening. The Mardigians give a rough estimate of one year after opening a bottle.
Pro tip: Light can affect the shelf life of extra virgin oil, so storing it in a cool, dark space is important.
Also look for specific sourcing.
“If you make wine, you’re making it from a specific type of grape. You don’t make wine from wine. Well at the grocery store, you’ll often see ‘Ingredients: Extra Virgin Olive Oil,'” Josh Mardigian said. “How do you make olive oil from olive oil?”
Bottles that list the specific olive variety and have detailed information about the olive grove can lend confidence that the olive oil is well sourced. Some bottles may say they’re from a specific region, but looking at the fine print may show that the oil comes from multiple countries making it harder to track, the California Olive Oil Council says on the buying tips of its website. The North American Olive Oil Association points out multiple countries listed could be for flavor profiling purposes, so it’s really up to the consumer.
Know what you want to use it for
For the Mardigians, Nuvo’s early harvest extra virgin olive oil (meaning oil made from olives while they’re still green) has a more bitter, peppery flavor and is best used for finishing dishes or on fresh produce in a salad dressing.
Their all-purpose extra virgin (made from olives during the later part of the harvest) tends to have a more mellow flavor that’s great for bread dipping, baking and cooking. Yes, cooking.
One of the great myths with olive oil that’s developed in recent years is that you can’t cook with it.
The source of that myth comes from the fact that olive oil is thought to have a lower smoke point than some other types of oils—but as long as you know the smoke point and don’t need the oil to heat up beyond that, it’s fine to cook with. Olive oil smoke points range from 347 degrees to 464 degrees, according to the UC Davis Olive Center. The Mardigians used 425 degrees as their baseline for good, fresh oil.
Some olive oils are infused with other ingredients that can be great for meals and, for Nuvo Olive Oil, the company’s flavorings (like blood orange or basil) are pressed in with late harvest olives.
Pro tip #2: Infused oils cannot be labeled extra virgin, according to the USDA.
This is part of a new “Demystifying” series, where we look at intimidating aspects of the food world and break them down. Up next: wine.
Have you ever seen something on a menu and had no idea what the dish actually was? Did it feel awkward to ask? Send any food-related terms or concepts that you’re curious to learn more about to [email protected] and we’ll get all your questions answered.