‘If Olive Oil Doesn’t Burn Your Throat, You Don’t Want It,’ Says an Olive Oil Sommelier

Photo: Stocksy/ Martí Sans
Go to a restaurant with a wine connoisseur and you’ll quickly learn that one doesn’t just take a sip of wine once it’s poured. In fact, most wine experts agree there’s a very methodical way to drink a glass of your fave pinot noir: Swirl the glass to aerate the wine, examine the hues, waft the aromas, and then, take a very small sip, allowing the liquid to coat your taste buds as you pick up on the subtle notes of strawberry and burnt oak. Of course, there’s a ton more that goes behind a day in the life of a sommelier, but you get the gist.

Come to find out, this process doesn’t only apply to the bottle of Malbec sitting in your cupboard (or cellar)—it’s actually quite similar to how you should taste test olive oil for quality. We caught up with Katerina Mountanos, a Greek-American olive oil sommelier and founder of the olive oil brand Kosterina, to learn the proper steps for identifying good-quality olive oil—and, yes, it should tickle your throat.

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How to taste test olive oil for quality

According to Mountanos, not all olive oil is created equal—but one of the easiest ways to decipher the higher-quality olive oil from the not-so-great kinds is simply by taking a sip of it. The caveat: It’s similar to tasting wine in that you’ll want to follow a few steps to make the right call.

Step 1. Prep the olive oil for tasting

“To taste olive oil like an expert you’ll want to pour your extra virgin olive oil in a small glass and warm the glass in your hand a bit,” Mountanos says. This action will help release the aromas as the liquid begins to heat up ever so slightly.

Keep in mind that the color of the oil isn’t as important for your taste testing session. “Believe it or not, color is actually not a good indicator for whether an olive oil is high quality. In fact, the expert taste testers that judge olive oil competitions do so in opaque—usually blue—glasses so the tasters cannot be swayed by the color of the olive oil,” Mountanos says.

Step 2. Breathe in all of the aromas

Next, you’ll want to gently swirl the olive oil in the cup to release even more aromas, and take a few deep breaths of it. “Swirl it around and bring the glass right to your nose to take in the aromas,” Mountanos says. “True olive oil should smell fresh, like grass or something fruity.” Conversely, if it smells musty, rancid, or even odorless, these may be signs the olive oil has expired or isn’t of the highest quality.

Step 3. Analyze the complex flavors

Finally, it’s time to taste the olive oil. Much like tasting wine, you’ll want to take a small sip and allow it to coat your taste buds. “Bring the extra virgin olive oil to the back of your mouth with some air. It should taste smoothe, but also a little bit bitter.” As demonstrated in this TikTok video, Mountanos takes a sip of the olive oil and aspirates through her mouth to aerate the olive oil and allow it to coat her entire tongue. If done correctly, this will help you to pick up on the different tasting notes of the oil. Mountanos says you should ideally recognize hints of grass, fruit, and almond.

@extravirginmama♬ original sound - ExtraVirginMama

But flavor isn’t all you’ll want to take note of. In fact, you should also look out for how the olive oil feels on your tongue and the back of your throat as you savor it. “You should get a bit of a slight burn or pepperiness at the back of your throat; those are the polyphenols—or antioxidants—that have incredible health benefits,” Mountanos says. Although the olive oil may taste slightly bitter on its own, Mountanos reassures us that it won’t have the same effect on food. “It will just add incredible depth of flavor to anything you’re pouring it on,” she says.

How to tell if olive oil is good quality without tasting it

Of course, the ultimate quality test is tasting the actual product. But if you find yourself at the store debating between two not-so-cheap bottles of olive oil, you may have no choice other than relying on a few telltale signs that don't involve your taste buds. Here’s how to tell if olive oil is good quality with just your eyes:

1. Examine the packaging

According to Mountanos, you’ll only want to buy olive oil that comes in an opaque glass bottle or aluminum tins. She explains that olive oil is highly volatile to heat and light exposure. “If the bottle is clear, you’ll want to stay away from that brand. Light and heat are the enemy to good extra virgin olive oil. So, a darker bottle will help preserve the olive oil,” Mountanos says. Once you make your purchase, you’ll also want to store your bottle in a cool, dry spot, and never on top of the stove, fam.

2. Find the harvest and expiration dates

Mountanos says it’s important to note that harvest and expiration dates are not the same. The key is to look for a batch date, bottled date, or harvested date that’s within 18 months of when you’re purchasing. Otherwise, you may be buying something that’s beyond its prime. “If it only has an expiration date and nothing else, you may want to consider not purchasing it because you could be purchasing olive oil that has been produced or bottled years before,” she says.

3. Read the labels carefully

“Look at the label to find out exactly where the olive oil was produced—just because the olive oil says it was packed or bottled in a certain location, doesn’t mean the olives were grown there. Olive oil could be made in a different country and then sent elsewhere for bottling,” Mountanos says, which may impact the quality of the oil. In addition, the olive oil expert notes that the label should always say “extra virgin” (which is always cold pressed without heat that can damage the delicate oils), and that shoppers should avoid terms like “pure,” “light,” or “olive pomace oil,” which may indicate that the product has been chemically refined.

As a rule of thumb, Mountanos recommends staying away from olive oil blends if the label shows the oils are coming from many different countries. “Blends of olive oil from many different countries are typically low quality olive oil and are often from previous harvests. We like to look for monovarietals,” she says. On the other hand, blends from the same country can still be considered high quality, Mountanos explains.

4. Check the prices

Sadly, if you want to get the good stuff, Mountanos says you’ll likely have to splurge, at least a little, for it. “Early harvest olive oil—which has the highest level of healthy polyphenols—is oil squeezed from the olive before the olive is ripe. An unripe olive yields much less olive oil but much higher quality oil,” she says. But this, in turn, can hike up the prices. “Since the manufacturer yields much less oil it makes the ‘juice’ more expensive,” Mountanos adds. “Unfortunately, if it’s cheap, it may not be genuine olive oil—so think of it as an investment in your health.”

TL;DR? If you’re buying olive oil at the store, pay attention to the labels (extra virgin is the gold standard), choose harvest dates within 18 months, and skip on the bargain prices whenever possible (as tempting as they may be). That said, ultimately, the best olive oil is the one you enjoy most—like a bottle of wine.

An RD unpacks the benefits of olive oil:

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