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.

Save for Later and Pin It!

How to choose olive oil #Oliveoil #healthy #tips #nutrition #mediterranean #diet #oil

Photo by Elena Paravantes

32 Comments

  • Reply Carystus September 16, 2021 at 9:25 am

    I second the gripes of Asim Esen. I guess the most likely reason is that VOO’s are often blended – with olive oil of unknown provenance and age – to match a presumed consumer requirement for a mild tasting oil so it will sell well, or perhaps for a more insidious purpose, such as to get rid of older surplus oil. The term VOO only tell you that it is first press rather than hexane extracted from the presscake. Incidentally, there is no such thing as ‘Extra’ as in EVOO, Extra carry no meaning as far as I am aware. The only way to be sure it is high quality is to buy food supplement grade (250 mg/kg of specific phenolic compounds required by the EU health claim). One oil from the 2020 olive harvest reported 2089 mg/kg total phenols (NMR measurement); that included 1104 mg/kg hydroxytyrosol, 985 mg/kg tyrosol, and 365 mg/kg oleuropein. There is probably a figure for oleocanthal (the peppery component) also. The bitter vs. pungent/peppery content may be down to harvest time, and surely to variety. That is just the way capitalism works, compounded by overpopulation, products gravitate to the lowest denominator, and high quality products become a rare and high priced specialty. Think organic vs. conventional farming; 70 years ago (appx. 1950), ‘conventional’ farming was introduced. The norm until then was implicitly organic, and most consumers and young people in particular are clueless as to the background for the ‘organic’ grade, they think the difference may come down to taste, while the truth is that the new industrial ‘conventional’ farming is inferior in multiple aspects. This web of deception is ubiquitous; fortunately olive trees are not farmed like grain, but the element of the lowest denominator is there just the same.

  • Reply rena May 11, 2020 at 12:24 pm

    question , I live in egypt and i got olive oil which takes like fruity or grapes…. its light and smells like olives , kinda thin, but there is no water in it. do i have to worry its not real … this is so hard now adays.

  • Reply Laurel December 17, 2018 at 9:37 pm

    What if you buy an expensive oil that is only bitter?…Not peppery, or “complex,” as I just have?

    • Reply Elena Paravantes RDN December 20, 2018 at 9:56 am

      Is it an early harvest olive oil? Is it aromatic? Can you see the date of harvest?

      • Reply Laurel December 20, 2018 at 10:08 pm

        What if you buy an expensive oil that is only bitter?…Not peppery, or “complex,” as I just have?
        It has a date of December 2017 on the bottle. This olive oil if from a small farm in Italy and I’m told that the olive oil varies in flavor from year to year. I ordered a bottle from them a few months ago and it was more aromatic and had that peppery kick in the back of the throat when you first tasted it. I really liked it. This batch seems rather “one-note,” principally bitter, though I think I could become accustomed to it in time. 🙂 I believe it’s a good quality product; I’m probably just in need of sharpening my palate.

  • Reply Asim Esen November 24, 2018 at 8:27 pm

    Nowadays, something is wrong with olive oils, even with virgin ones. They just do not have the fruity, pungent and bitter taste you describe and I love and miss.. When my late mother cooked, her olive oil smelled 10-20 meters away while she was heating it or frying onions. Not any more. Why doesn’t olive oil smell like olive oil any more? I

  • Reply Maura Arcos November 16, 2018 at 4:35 pm

    Thank you so much for this informative post. It answered all of my questions about what makes an olive oil good and healthful.

  • Reply Zalán Briglovics July 28, 2018 at 12:20 pm

    Thank you, you appeased me,because we have just bought a oil from a mekaer in Croatia and it was bitter!! But bitter is good.

  • Reply oosha November 10, 2017 at 7:50 pm

    I just got a litre of EVOO and when I tasted it, it was peppery and made me cough…so I wanted to return it. Thought I’d check it out online first though – et voila- here’s your article. Turns out, it’s full of antioxidants and all this time I’ve been drinking sub-par olive oil…..Thank you for clarifying these details!

  • 1 2

    Leave a Reply

    This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.