The way we've been thinking about olive oil is all wrong.

It turns out that we’ve been thinking about extra virgin olive oil all wrong.

Yes, it’s healthy and tasty — great for brushing on a crusty baguette or using for a quick sauté — but as a food, it’s more akin to fresh-squeezed orange juice than to a pantry staple that sits for months on a kitchen shelf.

Infographic on how to choose olive oil

Check out our tips for buying the right olive oil. Click on the image to expand or download your copy of the infographic as a PDF here.

Credit: University of California

Olives are a fruit, and extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) comes from crushing the fresh fruit and extracting the oil. The flavor should be fruity and often a bit bitter, with a pungency that imparts a spicy or peppery sensation, said Dan Flynn, the executive director of the UC Davis Olive Center.

To ensure you’re getting the best, freshest flavor, buy EVOO in the year of its harvest and in quantities that you can use in a month or two. Look for containers that minimize exposure to light and store the oil somewhere cool and dark.

“Those bitter and pungent compounds are related to antioxidants in the oil that are good for you,” Flynn said. When used in cooking, they also add depth and complexity to the dish: think of the bitter notes that give nuance to chocolate, for example.

Like wine, the flavor of olive oil is highly variable depending on the type of olives that are used to make it.

“Part of the fun is learning all the flavors out there. People should try new stuff, seek out new flavors,” Flynn said.

The UC Davis Olive Center conducts research at two different olive orchards and bottles its own high-quality EVOO from the 30 different varieties of olive trees that grow on campus.

Most commercial olive oil is made with a blend of different olives, but this fall, for the first time, the Olive Center will bottle six kinds of single-variety olive oils — a great way for people to taste the different flavor profiles.

Beginning in November, consumers will be able buy it at UC Davis stores or online, with all proceeds going to support the Olive Center and its research.

“It will be our highest quality olive oil yet,” said Flynn.

Students harvest olives by hand from young trees in the campus research grove.

Credit: Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis

Learn more about the UC Davis Olive Center:

The UC Davis Olive Center is on a mission to make California olive oil as celebrated as its wine. It offers olive oil tastings, classes on how to make olive oil and more.