MEDITERRANEAN OLIVE OILS have long been held up as the gold standard, but there are a number of good reasons to look closer to home when sourcing bottles for your kitchen. According to studies out of the University of California, Davis, for instance, nearly two-thirds of Mediterranean olive oils labeled extra-virgin—meaning extracted mechanically (without the use of heat or chemicals) solely from the fruit of the olive tree, and meeting a variety of chemical standards, including no more than 0.8 percent free fatty acidity (FFA), which is a marker of decomposition—aren’t actually extra-virgin at all.
Though it is, of course, possible to find European oils from reliable and ethical producers, it is also worth trying the many flavorful, utterly pure olive oils made right here in the U.S. Producers across the country, from Florida to Oregon to Hawaii, are growing and pressing olives, and many are putting labels on their bottles that clearly state date and location of harvest. Even better, many American olive oils taste fantastic. Domestic bottles are increasingly winning awards at international competitions. They are also typically fresher than imported oils, and therefore frequently boast brighter, more complex flavors. At right, a few standouts.
The most affordable high-quality domestic oil on the market is Trader Joe’s Extra Virgin California Estate Olive Oil. Pressed from olives harvested in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada mountains, the oil has a nuanced flavor with a slight grassiness and a subtle peppery finish. Flavorful enough to use as a dipping oil with a bit of vinegar and salt, it’s also suitable for everyday sautéing, frying or any other high-heat preparation where a bolder oil would lose its flavor. $6 for 500 ml, at Trader Joe’s stores
The Lonestar Star
Texas, America’s second-largest producer of olive oil after California, has an ideal climate for growing varieties like Arbequina, a Spanish olive, and Mission, a California native. Texas Hill Country Olive Company uses a mixture of these two varieties to create their award-winning Miller’s Blend Extra Virgin Olive Oil, which has a distinctly olive-y flavor that will remind you that, yes, the oil is in fact extracted from the olive tree’s fruit. Reminiscent of cured black olives, this oil makes a robust dressing for anything you might bolster with whole olives, from simple pastas to broiled fish and Niçoise salad. $26 for 500 ml, texashillcountryoliveco.com
Forty years ago, the Durant family helped found Oregon’s wine industry in the Willamette Valley. Now Paul Durant is bringing olive oil to the region. After a few seasons of experimenting to see which varieties do best in the colder climate and what agricultural practices help produce the best fruit, Mr. Durant has begun to focus on Tuscan varieties like Frantoio, Leccino and Pendolino. His Oregon Olive Mill Tuscan Extra Virgin Olive Oil has a robust, grassy, spicy and slightly bitter flavor that works well in hearty dishes like roasted vegetables or grilled steak, where it can be a nuanced alternative to black pepper. $19 for 375 ml, redridgefarms.com/oregon-olive-mill
The Gold Medalist
While most California olive oil producers came to the craft in the early 2000s—just as advances in growing and harvesting technologies significantly lowered production costs—the Lucero family has been producing olive oil on their farm for three generations. They now offer a wide assortment of olive oils, many of which have won awards at international competitions. Their Miller’s Blend Certified Extra Virgin Olive Oil, which won gold at both the L.A. and the Yolo County Fairs, is the perfect finishing oil for practically any dish. Warm, buttery and complex, with a light, spicy back note, it also makes a lovely drizzle for apple slices or chunks of cantaloupe. $14 for 500 ml, lucerooliveoil.com
The Southern Revival
Records show that in the 18th century, Spanish colonists on the coast of Georgia planted olive groves that persisted until sometime around the Civil War. Fast forward to 2009, when Georgia Olive Farms, a cooperative of growers from the southern part of the state, began experimenting with different varieties. Their Arbequina, Arbesana and Koroneiki trees have since proven remarkably successful. The cooperative’s Chef’s Blend Extra Virgin Olive Oil is an excellent everyday oil with a mild, nutty flavor that works well for everything from sautéing vegetables to making homemade marinades and pestos. $32 for 500 ml, georgiaolivefarms.com