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Most of the extra virgin olive oil we buy in grocery stores is, by definition, rancid. (Image: Joshua Lewis / Seattle Refined)

Extra Virgin Olive Oil; We're doing it wrong

A high-end PAM. It's safe to say that's how most Americans think of and use extra virgin olive oil. Put a little in a pan before a stir fry and your food won't stick. Ta-dah!

Well. The European Union and Italian Department of Agriculture want to personally stop you from the huge disservice you're doing to yourself and your family if this is the only way you're thinking of extra virgin olive oil (EVOO). They're jointly launching a Flavor Your Life campaign to increase awareness and consumption of high quality extra virgin olive oil.

At first glance this may seem like a slightly unimportant thing to launch a campaign about. It's just oil, right?

Therein lies the crux of why Europeans think Americans in particular need this heightened knowledge about EVOO. Did you know that when most of us try real high quality extra virgin olive oil, we can't identify it as such? We are so used to the taste of the olive oil we get in our stores - which is technically rancid.

Yes, you heard that right. Most of the labelled extra virgin olive oil in grocery stores are, by EVOO standards, rancid oils. Pretty embarrassing seeing how it's the most popular oil in the U.S.

"Most of what you buy in the grocery store is what's called refined olive oil," said Jim Dixon of Real Good Food. "That means it's deodorized and stripped of flavor and nutrients. It usually won't say refined on the label, but it's refined."

Dixon used to be one of us. He used to buy those jugs of olive oil at Costco, and didn't know any better until he travelled to Italy several years ago. After tasting the real deal, he began importing small batches from Italy to his business in Portland, and selling them from there.

"Now in our house, we put it it on almost everything on our table, besides breakfast cereal," said Dixon. "And I don't even eat breakfast cereal."

The benefit of using true extra virgin olive oil isn't just to impress your friends with knowledge at dinner parties. When used instead of butter in cakes, cookies, pastries, etc. the vitamin E and polyphenols in the oil will give your baked goods a longer shelf life, more flavor, and make them flakier. EVOO also contains the "good fats", and leaves behind more of the the saturated fats that we're used to seeing in butter.

Don't worry, we're not just going to tell you that you've been buying diluted, flavorless oil with little to no health benefits and not let you now how to fix it! Dixon gave us tips on how to choose legitimate olive oils next time you're shopping:

  • Look for olive oils stored in dark bottles. Overexposure to light and heat can cause oil to go rancid, so companies that package their oil in dark colored bottles know what they're doing.

  • Check the label to see when the date of harvest was. Olive oil is the opposite of wine - you want newer rather than older. If you're shopping now, look for bottles with a harvest date of 2014 or 2013 (olives harvest in the fall, so the 2013 date will just mean September or October of last year - not that long ago).

  • Find out what regions the olives were grown in. Italy, Greece or California - specific regions don't matter as much as the legitimacy of the company bottling the oil. If you're buying Italian oil, make sure the label says " product of Italy", not "bottled in Italy".

  • Taste it. This is going to be hard in most grocery stores, but more niche stores might let you sample a bit. The three taste points to look for in high quality EVOO are fruitiness, bitterness, and pungency.

Once you have your unadulterated bottle of extra virgin olive oil, don't be afraid to drizzle it over any and everything at home. Some of Dixon's favorite little dishes are a scoop of vanilla ice cream with a drizzle of oil on top, or a couple squares of dark chocolate with salt and oil on the side.

Remember, extra virgin olive oil is the highest quality and most expensive oil classification there is. So by definition it's alright to demand that it be the best!

Dixon and Blue Ribbon Cooking School whipped up a couple dishes for us using EVOO to demonstrate how easy it is, and how great it can taste. Check out the gallery for pictures, and follow the links in the captions for recipes.