I was writing a post about salads and before I knew it, I was off on a tangent about olive oil. While writing this I haven’t been able to think of a single truly Sicilian salad that does not contain oil, so it seemed to be putting the cart before the horse to talk about salad without addressing oil.
I am not writing an exhaustive treatise about the history of olive oil or production methods or esoteric things that are fun to hear on a tour of an olive farm (which I recommend you do if you have the opportunity). I’m writing about how we, living outside of Sicily with access to normal shops, can get some decent olive oil for Sicilian cooking without breaking the bank.
A technical note: when I say “oil” for the remainder of this article, I am talking about extra virgin olive oil. This is the so-called “first-press” or “cold-press” from whole olives extracted mechanically (which in 2020 can mean centrifuges), without the use of steam or solvents. It’s the good stuff.
Sicilian cooking can be summed up as “I fry it” or “I boil it” or “I grill it” followed by “I put oil on it.” When a cuisine relies so heavily on a single ingredient, its importance can’t be overstated. Even when frying, olive oil needs to not only be good, but its flavor profile has to fit what you’re cooking. The flavor of olive oil, like wine, is dependent not only on the quality of its production, but also on the variety of olive. In Sicily oil is made from quite a few cultivars. Among the best known are Biancolilla, Cerasuola, Nocellara del Belice, Nocellara Etnea (AKA Nocellata Dell’Etna) and Tonda Iblea. Moresca, Ogliarola Messinese, Brandofino, Olivo di Castiglione and Giraffa (yes, this means giraffe) are also grown.
It’s hard to generalize but Sicilian oil is generally rich and spicy but not peppery. It’s typically herbaceous or grassy. Tomato stem or green tomato is a common characteristic, especially in oils from the east, as is artichoke. Sweetness or almond are often used to describe oils from the west.
Purely because of the taste profile, for Sicilian cooking I recommend getting olive oil from Sicily. Lake Garda, which inexplicably shares a spiritual link with Sicilian oil, would be my first runner up, followed by California oil made with not too high a proportion of Mission olives, and finally oil from Puglia (Apulia). I would avoid oil from Liguria (which is amazing and has a place in my kitchen but is too light for Sicilian food) or Tuscany (too peppery in taste and rarely a good value). For other places, taste your way to success.
Healthy olive trees are prolific and a few mature trees can produce enough oil for an extended family to last the year. In Sicily, everyone seems to have a zio, nonno, suocero, cugino, cognato or cumpàri with a country house and a few trees from whom they get at least some of their oil. When the autumn comes and the olive trees fleck with amethyst, Zù Turiddu (Uncle Sal) takes his harvest to the local cooperative olive mill where he can either have his olives milled by themselves (a paid service), or add his olives to the cooperative production in exchange for a percentage of oil made from the group’s olives back. In most Sicilian homes I’ve visited, Zù Turiddu’s oil comes out of old mineral water or coke bottles or recycled jars or 1970’s Tupperware, refilled from a bag-in-box at the bottom of the coat closet, or a basement where available. Without our own Zù Turiddu, we have to make do with what we can find in shops and online.
Many food writers recommend having two olive oils: one “finishing” oil for drizzling on raw at the last minute and another for cooking. Too often this advice gets interpreted as “I need one really fancy expensive olive oil and one shit olive oil.” In any case, I think it’s nonsense. I recommend you find an oil you like at a price you’re comfortable with and use it for everything.
If you do want to try out other bottles (I tend to have two or three in addition to my every-day oil), then I would save them for times when they can really shine. This, to my thinking, would never include a salad with vinegar. Why would you mix vinegar into your best oil??? I use a special oil in dishes where it can express its individual fragrance. Drizzle it over warm bread, warm beans, warm boiled vegetables, etc. Last night I made an antipasto of slices of our yellow semolina bread covered with warm just-boiled chickpeas, sliced onion and poured over some incredible estate bottled oil made from Tonda Iblea olives. It made the whole kitchen smell like an oleificio. Last week I boiled some zucchini from the garden, and while they were still warm, I sprinkled them with coarse salt and then a lightly floral single-orchard Biancolilla oil from Val di Mazara. These are the moments to use your best oil, not in a lettuce salad with vinegar (facepalm).
Finding oil you like at a good price can be easier said than done. If you go to the supermarket (at least in America) you’ll be faced with a wall of choices, from giant plastic jugs to perfume bottles at all price points. Some brands will be familiar, others not. And guess what: most of those bottles are rancid. I’ve read that rancid oil is so common in the US and UK that there are people who think rancidity is what olive oil is supposed to taste like. This makes me incredibly sad.
I typically buy oil in specialty shops or delis but when I do occasionally buy olive oil in the supermarket, I do something terrible. If no one is looking, I open it and smell it. Three times out of five it’s rancid. Of course, the non-sociopathic way to do this is to buy the oil and then go smell and/or taste it there just outside the store. If it is rancid, bring it right back inside and return it. Be fearless: if you know that oil is rancid, insist that they take it back.
This assumes you are adept at tasting olive oil. If you’re not, there’s never been a better time to learn! Head over to YouTube and search “olive oil tasting.” The Pasta Grannies people have a very informative video but there are hundreds. Stick to professional tasters focused on Italian oil, there are some nimrods out there. If they are tasting out of blue cups, that’s a good sign. Rancidity is fairly easy to detect, if oil smells like wet laundry or old oil cans, it’s rancid. If, when you taste it, it coats your mouth more like paint than like something delicious and unctuous, then, yes, it’s rancid.
A good ally in the search for fresh oil is a store with a high turnover. If you have a favorite Italian deli, talk to them about the oils they have and which are the best sellers. The more oil they sell, the fresher it is. I went to a very well-known Italian deli to do some research for this post and every glass bottle of the better olive oils they had was from the 2018 harvest (more on this later). Caveat emptor!
When it comes to price, I consider the per-mL or per-ounce cost, rather than the cost of a bottle, and given the choice I buy in bulk, since I use nearly a liter per month. Olive oil keeps well for months if stored properly, in a cool, dark place with a stable temperature, but it does NOT improve with age.
When I lived in Europe I had no trouble buying amazing olive oil direct from Sicily for 40 Euro cents per ounce (€ .0132/ML) or less including shipping. In the US, there are decent oils available at that price but to get something special I need to creep up to 80 cents or even a dollar US per ounce. If you start doing the math (divide the price by the number of ounces or mL of the bottle), you’ll see those “fancy” oils (just as often rancid btw) in the 350 or 500 mL bottle can be upwards of two dollars per ounce or more and to me that is just silliness. That is a dollar for a tablespoon of oil! There is one oil made from taggiasca olives I buy on occasion for Ligurian cooking that is $1.11 per ounce but it’s a rare extravagance. Let your budget and values decide what it’s worth to you.
Armed with your calculator, your nose and with your bullshit-meter on alert, the first step in identifying a good oil is to look at the bottle. Clear glass containers are sometimes a tip that the oil is more about appearance than substance. Dark colored glass bottles or metal tins are the better choice. Remember that professional olive oil tasters taste from dark blue cups so they can’t be swayed by color, because color indicates nothing about the quality or flavor of olive oil. Plastic containers often contain junk but keep your eyes peeled. There are some good value brands packed in clear and colored plastic containers. Dust isn’t a bad sign on its own but caked dust, or dust combined with a faded or peeling label is a red flag.
Next, read the label. The oil should be from a single region and explicitly say “product of Italy” or “produced in Italy” and “Extra-Virgin Olive Oil,” which if the oil is from Italy (or anywhere in the European Union) has a legally controlled meaning. If it’s “packed in Italy” or “processed in Italy,” move on. If it’s a California oil, be sure it has the “COOC Certified Extra Virgin” seal from the California Olive Oil Council, otherwise you’re taking it on faith. Many oils from Italy say something like “contains oils from…” followed by a list of four or five countries. These oils are garbage.
The label should include the harvest year if not also the month (sometimes two years are listed because the olive harvest is generally November through January). Some even include the pressing date, but a bottling date is meaningless: you could keep oil in a tank for months before bottling it. If the date is more than 12 months ago, move on unless you are in a special store that you would trust with the life of your infant child. Optimally stored olive oil can stay good for up to two years but fresher is better.
Some Italian oils feature a “DOP” seal meaning denominazione d’origine protetta or “protected denomination of origin.” This means the oil is made from specific olive varieties grown in a defined area, typically one with a long tradition for producing oil this way or a head for marketing, or both. DOP is usually a sign of a quality oil but there are many excellent oils that do not have DOP.
I’m loath to mention brands by name but I will because I know when I started shopping for olive oil, I wish I had somewhere to start. I have no professional relationship or sponsorship with or from any of these brands. They are just brands I know, trust and like.
My everyday workhorse olive oil is Partanna brand which is made by the Asaro company in a modern oleificio with centrifuges in Partanna, Sicily. It’s a medium-intensity oil made entirely from the Nocellara del Belice olive. It’s widely available at Italian delis in the US for around $35-40 for 3L, or $0.39 per ounce. It’s pretty good and it’s very consistent. And it also breaks some of the rules I listed above. It does not list the harvest date, it lists a “best before” date. I know this date is 2 years from the packing date and I know they don’t hold oil for more than three months after production. I know this because I called them and asked. They could have lied, sure, but I’ve been using the oil for almost two years and I’ve been happy with it. I can get it reliably at a good price from a store with a high turnover.
At supermarkets in the US, a good bet is California Olive Ranch “100% California Everyday” oil, which is around $0.60 per ounce for the largest formats. This oil is very popular and I have not had many problems with rancidity.
I recently tried Cobram Estate California oil and it was good, if not perfectly Sicilian, at $0.67 an ounce.
If you’re a Whole Foods shopper, especially for this post I tried a bottle of the “365 Whole Foods Market Extra Virgin Olive Oil 100% California unfiltered cold-processed” oil and I was really happy with it at $0.38 per ounce. The taste profile is spicy and grassy and I think it complements Sicilian cooking adequately. I liked it better than Partanna and California Olive Ranch, though I’m skeptical as to how consistent this product will be over time.
If you’re in Europe, Azienda Agricola Oddo and Amodeo’s Farm both make excellent oil and ship competently throughout the continent (and the world but the financial and ecological cost of shipping adds up fast). Amodeo’s oil won silver in the NYIOOC in 2019 and the farm has a tasting room to visit if you find yourself near Menfi. Francesco also gives an entertaining tour of the farm. Tell him Joe from Berlin sent you.
With all of the above said, if you can’t find olive oil that meets the above criteria in your price range, then my advice is taste your way to success. Skip the best-known supermarket brands. A quick google search will reveal scandal after scandal of them selling diluted or blended oil as extra virgin. Local delis often have a favorite “house oil” (how I discovered Partanna) and if you like it, use it. You will need to invest a little money to find a brand you’re happy with, but once you do, it does not have to be expensive.
Do you have a brand of oil you swear by? Tell us about it in the comments!