How to Recognize Good and Bad Olive Oil

Olive Oil Tasting

The reality is that many people do not know what a good olive oil is supposed to taste like. And since I have many recipes that include olive oil, I thought I would give some tips on what to look for in a good olive oil. We always hear that good food comes from fresh ingredients. Olive oil in the Mediterranean diet is an ingredient that is in almost every recipe-especially in Greek cuisine-let’s not forget Greeks are the highest consumers of olive oil in the world, and for a reason; olive oil is added everywhere. That is why it is especially important to have good olive oil if you are trying to incorporate elements of this diet to your current eating pattern. But apart from flavor, good olive oil is important for its health benefits: old olive oil lacks those valuable antioxidants that are responsible for most of its health benefits.

You may think that you would know just by tasting if an olive oil is bad, but that is not the case, particularly when olive oil has not been part of your diet initially. A study from the University of California, Davis had found that 44% of consumers in the U.S. liked defects like rancidity, fustiness, mustiness and winey flavor in their olive oil. The authors indicate this may be due to the large amount of defective olive oil labeled as extra virgin available to consumers. In other words because there is such a large amount of defective oil in the market and people are used consuming it, they think that this is what olive oil is supposed to taste like.

I remember bringing some fresh (early harvest) olive oil from my father’s groves to a friend in the U.S. and when she tasted it and it had that slight peppery sensation (presence of polyphenols) she coughed a bit and politely said thank you. When I visited about a year later, I noticed that the bottle was almost full and still in her cupboard. I am assuming she did not like it because she was used to older olive oils that did not have that peppery sensation, a bit milder but not fresher and with less (if any) polyphenols (antioxidants). She probably thought that it was a bad olive oil, when in fact that characteristic is desirable.

So the lesson here is that by not knowing what good olive oil tastes like, you may be missing out on not only taste but also the health benefits.

While I was raised on olive oil, I realized there are so many details to tasting olive oil correctly. I recently took some olive oil tasting classes here in Greece, where I was able to pinpoint some of the standard characteristics of a good or bad olive oil.

In order to be able to make some sort of judgment of whether an olive oil is good you would need to know what a bad one tastes like. So you can start by comparing different olive oils. Some ideas: extra virgin with processed olive oil, olive oils from different locations or different varieties of olives, old olive oil with fresh, etc.

Ideally you want the olive oil to be in a small cup, even one where you cannot see the color. I use small Greek coffee cups (they are like espresso cups) or you can also use a shot glass.  Add a small amount of olive oil (no more than 1 tablespoon) in the cup. Cover with your palm and swirl. Take a sip while sucking in some air too. Let the oil sit in the mouth spreading throughout, tasting and then swallow.

We are not talking about professional olive oil tasting, but I think it is important for a consumer to know what flavors or characteristics good olive oil should and should not have. Here are the tastes, flavors and characteristics you should be looking for according to the International Olive Oil Council.

Good Characteristics

Fruity
Let’s not forget that olives are fruit so a good olive oil needs to have some degree of fruitiness. This can come from ripe olives or unripe (green) olives. Olive oil should taste fresh, not heavy and “oily”.

Bitter
Yes, bitter is good. Bitterness is a characteristic of fresh olive oil. Olives are bitter. The degree of bitterness depends on how ripe the olive is. So a bitter olive oil is a positive thing. However, depending on your taste you may want to find an olive oil that has a balance of fruity and bitter that you can tolerate.

Pungent
This is a peppery characteristic that you will feel at the back of your throat when you swallow the oil. You may even cough. Many people think this is bad (like my friend) but it is not, it is actually of olive oil from unripe olives and of fresh olive oil. It also signifies the presence of certain antioxidants. And remember this peppery sensation should go away fairly quickly, it should not linger.

Bad Characteristics

Olive Oil should not have the following characteristics:

Fusty
This is common defect that appears when the olives are gathered in piles and may cause advanced fermentation. According to Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne, an olive oil cosultant, fusty smells like or tastes like sweaty socks or swampy vegetation.

Musty
Basically a moldy flavor that appears when the olives were stored for several days in a humid environment and developed yeast and fungi.

Winey-Vinegary
Exactly as it is described, no your olive oil should not taste or smell like wine. Again this is due to fermentation of the olives.

Metallic
A taste that reminds of metal. Usually it is a result of prolonged contact with metallic surface during production but also storage.

Rancid
This is the most common defect, it is basically olive oil gone bad and you may have come across this taste when you eat old nuts or stale crackers that are made with fat.

Now let’s go back to that study from the UC Davis: it said that 44% of U.S. consumers, liked defects like rancidity, fustiness, mustiness and winey flavor. I’m sure, they do not really “like” these defects, and they just think that that is how olive oil should taste. Being aware of these defects can help in detecting some of these negative characteristics.

Stay tuned for my next post, I will provide tips on how to buy and store olive oil.

Photo by Elena Paravantes

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31 Comments

  • Reply Cynthia September 25, 2013 at 8:54 am

    I would like to thank you Elena for this article as a mediteranean dietitian you insoired me and encouraged me to assist to an olive oil tasting in my country Lebanon
    Regards

    • Reply Elena Paravantes RD September 26, 2013 at 1:56 pm

      Wonderful to hear Cynthia. Good Luck!

  • Reply Ioannis September 27, 2013 at 8:34 am

    Well said Elena.

    We need people like you to educate the public on what a good olive oil should taste like.
    The characteristics you mention and the tasting method is an excellent start.

    Great article!

    • Reply Elena Paravantes RD October 1, 2013 at 4:51 pm

      Thank you Ioannis

  • Reply How to Use Olive Oil to Get the Most Benefits | Olive Tomato October 14, 2013 at 2:25 pm

    […] the previous posts I shared some tips on how to buy and taste olive oil. But all that will not make any difference if you do not know how to use it correctly. So […]

  • Reply CC November 16, 2013 at 12:16 am

    I think fusty tastes kind of like oily wet paper or cardboard. Not pleasant. But i have met someone who likes fusty oil, even with knowing it is defective.

    • Reply Elena Paravantes RD November 16, 2013 at 8:05 am

      Thanks for the description CC. Taste sometimes is very subjective, but it is too bad someone would prefer knowingly a bad or old olive oil.

  • Reply Beware of Olive Oils | Rick Emerson Ong December 3, 2013 at 4:21 am

    […] are oxidized, of poor quality, and/or adulterated with cheaper refined oils. Olive Oil Tasting Elena Paravantes RD over at Olive Tomato describes how REAL virgin olive oil should taste like: Good Characteristics […]

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  • Reply How to Buy Good Olive Oil | Olive Tomato January 26, 2014 at 4:38 pm

    […] my previous post I shared some ways to figure out if the olive oil you are consuming is good. But what should you […]

  • Reply Ivy Kuroki April 10, 2014 at 3:55 pm

    Great article, thank you so much for posting!

  • Reply Comparing Oils and Debunking their Myths and Truths - Train Heroic May 27, 2014 at 9:47 pm

    […] A good olive oil should have a fruity, bitter, pungent taste.  Olive oil should not have a fusty, musty, […]

  • Reply marian peckumn March 6, 2015 at 11:18 pm

    My mom has been told to take a tsp of olive oil with a peppery taste while taking radiation for inflammation. My problem is how do I know before buying it if it has a peppery taste

  • Reply Marci May 16, 2015 at 1:17 am

    I’m glad I came across this. The olive oil we have right now is so fruity it’s almost sweet! It sort of tastes like plums. I wasn’t sure if that meant it was good or bad, but I’m going to think good because I quite like it. It’s also very full flavored.

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  • Reply randy December 30, 2015 at 11:12 pm

    hi, i read EXTRA VIRGINITY by tom mueller about a yr ago. afterward, i felt quite insecure about getting the real thing when buying olive oil. the book was quIte an eye-opener and i’d suggest it to anyone who wants to buy and eat the real thing. it’s an interesting read about every aspect of olive oil production from history, geography, olive types, chemistry, mafia involvement, corruption, mis-labeling—-etc—some of which is covered in this article and blog. there were some suggestions about where to find good oil though no specific labels.

  • Reply robert shaw February 2, 2016 at 5:16 am

    bitter is good, ta for this

  • Reply Naz April 21, 2016 at 8:56 pm

    Thank you elena, I now feel I can spread positive word about olive oil and let the world see its beauty, love Naz

  • Reply Jessica May 11, 2016 at 1:56 pm

    Hi Elena,
    I have some fresh olive oil from Messinia that was just pressed in the fall. I understand that ‘peppery-make-you-cough’ stuff is good, but I do not like it for salad dressings and dipping 🙁 It is cloudy with a ‘thicker’ layer on the bottom of my little glass dispenser (we have a 10L metal container straight from the co-op that I keep under the counter). Will this oil eventually change to not be so strong? Usually the oil from this place is the best of the best, but with this batch, I just can’t get used to it ‘raw’ (cooking with it is fine).

    • Reply Olive Tomato May 12, 2016 at 5:38 am

      Hi Jessica, The intense flavor does eventually go away, but unfortunately so does the nutritional value.

  • Reply Can You Really Tell if Your Olive Oil is Fake? | Olive Tomato June 22, 2016 at 8:40 am

    […] are several tips that I have presented in previous posts here and here on how to choose a good olive oil, but at the end of the day, can you really […]

  • Reply Ebrahim Algaldari August 11, 2016 at 8:30 am

    Thank you for the olive oil article really appreciated effort , my question if the oil changes from lequid to hard when kept in the refrigrator . Is it good or bad sign thank and regards,
    Ebrahim Algaldari

  • Reply Kashif August 20, 2016 at 3:01 pm

    Hi…
    Thanks a bunch …

    I bought Al-Ard organic extra virgin oil.
    I mixed it with Ispaghol ( Psyllium seed husks) for digestion problems, and man .. when I tasted it … it was BITTER …
    My first thought was … Man I got the wrong/ spoiled one … I instantly searched Internet and found your article . hwere it says .. bitter is ok .

    I hope , mine one is Ok as well 😉

    Regards
    Kashif

    • Reply Elena September 9, 2016 at 10:56 am

      Thank Kashif, glad the article was useful for you!

  • Reply Mish September 24, 2016 at 1:26 am

    I cannot find an olive oil that doesn’t taste fusty, musty, or rancid where I live. It usually tastes all of those things and has a sickening heavy oil taste to it. I’m beginning to think that these oil companies are selling us the worst oil because Americans are too ignorant to know what good olive oil tastes like.

  • Reply Brian Dougan September 26, 2016 at 3:51 am

    Costco members: Try Costco. Their Kirkland Signatures brand; one liter. It’s labelled Extra Virgin Olive Oil; from Tuscany. It tells you the harvest date, and maximum acidity. It’s genuine, and certified. The price is very reasonable, and it has high consumer ratings. After watching the “Sixty Minutes” article about the olive oil Mafia, and fake oils; I decided to try this particular Costco brand.

    It smells very nice; with a light, fruity flavor–AND–it burns the back of one’s throat. Not excessively; but a definite burn. I take a spoonful of the stuff, and enjoy the taste, and the spicy; burning sensation. I learned about the “burn” from the Italian olive oil tasters interviewed on “Sixty Minutes.” I think it’s under twenty dollars. Unheard of for a genuine oil. And–if you decide you don’t like it; Costco will refund your money.

  • Reply Mudassir November 29, 2016 at 6:37 am

    Can i use it orally, like drink directly from the bottle?

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