In this series, the First We Feast crew investigates the truth behind highbrow products saturating the food world. We consult experts to figure out how to navigate all the snobbery and decide whether it’s really worth all the hype.

Wine snobbery is grating, but we can deal with it in certain circumstances. Same goes for people boasting incessantly about their “100-mile” diet. But when someone at the dinner table starts extolling the “clean grassiness” of the olive oil on the table, we often can’t help ourselves from going into I’ma-hafta-slap-a-foodie mode.

But hold the phone: Just because olive-oil snobbery is aggravating doesn’t mean that caring about good olive oil isn’t reasonable. Because to be fair, the good stuff really does taste great. The question is, does it matter what you put in your pasta water or 10-second salad dressing?

With specialty grocery stores stocking more options than ever—some of which come with serious price tags—we decided it was time to get some real guidance.

THE EXPERT: Nick Coleman, resident olive oil specialist at Eataly and the world’s only owner of an olive-wood bass guitar.

COLEMAN SAYS:

Olive oil goes bad. It degrades and suffers from oxidation, making it become more acidic. Olive oil should be used in two to three months before it goes flat, loosing both flavor and health benefits.

“Extra virgin” is not just a gimmick. Long story short, the olive oils marked extra virgin have the lowest percentage of free oleic acid, which means they are the purest representation of the good acid you want for flavor and health. Virgin oil follows next in line, then pure oil and finally lamp grade oil.

Olive oil should always taste clean. It should be tasted alone, and if it doesn’t taste good, it’s not (think musty, dirty, and not enjoyable to sip). The flavor of oil will affect your food during cooking, seasoning, and finishing.

BUYER’S GUIDE:

When you’re at the store staring at a wall full of olive oils, look out for these key details:

First Cold Press. These words mean that olives went through a single pressing to extract oil and that the process was temperature regulated (so no aromas, or flavor, is lost during the process). This should be true of any good-to-great olive oil, but it is not enough information to ensure quality.

Harvest Date. Harvest always happen in the fall, and bottles should be candid about when the fruit was collected. The fall 2011 batch is the freshest pull on shelves currently (look out for the 2012 stuff to come through around the end of the month). Even a $90, uber-highbrow olive oil will begin to go bad after a period of time, opened or not, so always buy recently harvested oils.

Next page: the importance region and olive varietals—plus, the bottom line…


Region. Olives in a bottle should all come from the same region. But beware: The label “Product From Italy” does not ensure quality. As long as the bottle is shipped from Italy, it can sport that designation on its label. As a result, some sneaky producers use olives from outside Italy, then package it within the boot to trick consumers.

Olive Varietals. In addition to the country of origin, check what type of olives were used to make the oil. Is it a blend, or did the olives come from a single grove? As you taste more, you’ll figure out your preferences for what you like (think of it like beans for coffee or grapes for wine).

Coleman recommends buying one mid-range workhorse oil for cooking ($15—$24) and two top shelf oils ($25—$40) with varying flavors for finishing plates. Also, always buy extra virgin oils. For your finishing oils, look for early-harvest olives with grassy and robust flavors for dishes like steak, and more mild and buttery later-season selections for dishes like fish, pasta, and vegetables.

Tip: The mid-range category is where impostors tend to hide. Use the tips above, check bottles for details, and don’t be scared to spend two dollars extra. Coleman contends that those two dollars could be the difference between murky, dingy oil that tastes awful and a brightly clean, world-class product.

THE VERDICT:

Nice olive oil will certainly improve the quality and flavor of your food, but it’s up to you if you want to embrace all the branding out there. Upgrading oils does not have to be incredibly expensive. Coleman says good olive oil will cost you about one dollar a dish when used liberally. And perhaps the most compelling point: A great utility oil can be attained for only a few more dollars than the cost of a big-ass plastic bottle that will go bad (or badder than it was) before you use all of it anyway.