Do the extra bucks make a difference? Here's what you need to know.
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Though the contents of their bottles look similar on the grocery store shelf, olive oils tend to vary widely in price. A one-liter bottle of extra virgin olive oil might cost $6.99. A few bottles away, a half-liter vessel might cost twice as much. Is paying for better olive oil worth it? When you consider that a good bottle doesn’t mean the priciest bottle—and when you think about the capacity of better olive oils to enhance food—the answer is yes.

Simply put, good olive oil improves your food and, though more expensive, can actually save you money.

Quality Dictates Taste

How so, you ask? When you cook with better extra virgin olive oil (extra virgin being this article's focus), it’s far easier to make dishes like a simple pasta taste great. Olive oil also has great potential as a finisher. A pre-meal dousing can brighten soups, savory yogurts, and even ceviche. A glug and a quick stirring can bring roasted vegetables like carrots or fennel to life. There is an ancient alchemy to good olive oil. The rich fats and flavors allow the delicious, savory nature of vegetables to speak more confidently, plus good olive oil brings its own aromas and accents.

Simply stated, when you use good olive oil, whether dressing a salad or building a sauce, your food will taste better. Using good olive oil will allow you to make a $5 pasta or velvety squash soup sing. Good olive oil makes for good cooking. And when good cooking is easier and within closer reach, you’re more likely to cook, which paves the way for more cooking and less eating out.

When It Comes To Olive Oil, Freshness Is Key

Yes, buying better olive oil can save you money.

Like apples and bread, olive oil is better fresh. Like other agricultural products, olive oil’s quality wanes over time, but slowly. This is one reason the coming of olio nuovo, early winter’s first batch of newly pressed olive oil, is celebrated each year in Italy. The fresh oil that results is often a vivid green alive with grassy and fruity notes that can be astonishing. (For those looking for an option widely available, Trader Joe’s has been known to carry olio nuovo in-season.)

Freshness is one of the key reasons to buy better olive oil. When you a spend a few dollars more, your olive oil is likely to show the date it was made. You would surprised by how many olive oils on the shelf are more than a few seasons old.

Seeing the date lets you pick a fresher bottle. Bottles at mid-level price points and up are also more likely to list other telling details, including olive varietal, as well as where within the country of origin the olives were grown.

Another consideration is that better olive oils are more likely to be smartly packaged. Cheaper olive oils tend to come in clear plastic or glass, which admit more light, decreasing the quality of the oil more quickly. Better olive oil brands will counter this by packaging in metal or dark glass.

Finally, fresh olive oil is also better for you. Studies have shown that fresh extra virgin olive oil has a higher polyphenol count, meaning the oil’s antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. (For the other excellent health benefits you’ll reap from EVOO, see our guide here.)

You’re Developing Your Palate, Too

At lower price points, olive oils tend to lack character. They tend to be similar, and low on the vibrant spirit that makes olive oil great. But when you travel even a few dollars up per bottle, things are likely to change.

One bottle might strike you as light and herbaceous. Another might have notes of orange peel. A third might be rich and spicy. Some better oils will even produce a peppery tingle in your throat. This feeling, triggered by anti-inflammatory oleocanthals, is common to many high-quality olive oils.

Over time, you may notice differences between olive types. You might notice differences between Spanish and Tunisian oils, Greek and Californian. Even within Italy, you might see differences between Ligurian and Puglian.

A Few of Our Favorites

To start down a path into using better olive oil, simply do just that. Invest in a few better olive oils, like those of Lucini, California Olive Ranch, and Brightland. Try to notice the differences between them, and how they can change your food relative to cheaper olive oils. Another lower-price gateway is Trader Joe’s Sicilian Selezione. At just $7.99 for 500 milliliters, it does a great job and may convert you to the smart practice of using good olive oil.