Despite cooking professionally for 15-plus years, the olive oil section of the grocery store is still a source of some of my most uninformed consumer purchases. Virgin, Extra-Virgin, Pure, Cold-Pressed, First-Pressing, etc. are claims that litter the sometimes impenetrable wall of babble. Yesterday at Cooking Light we had an interesting presentation from Tom Mueller, best-selling author of Extra-Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil that shed some light on the subject.

And (surprise, surprise) it turns out that in the world of olive oil, oftentimes you get what you pay for. Mueller is keen to point out the vast amount of wiggle-room within the designation “extra-virgin.” And suffice it to say, the quality of oils that bear that designation can vary greatly. But what does that mean to the confused consumer? That you need to break the bank just to make a salad dressing? Fortunately, no.

Really, a good barometer for olive oil purchases for me is how much residual flavor is going to be in the dish once it’s finished. If I’m just sautéing chicken and then discarding the oil, I’m inclined to go with pure or even something neutral like grapeseed as the flavor won’t matter too much and heating olive oil over a certain point is going to make it lose some of its healthful benefits anyway. For a vinaigrette or sautéing vegetables where the oil will remain in the dish but will be blended with other flavors, a good mid-range extra-virgin generally does the trick. And if you are the type of person who likes a drizzle of oil on a piece of cooked fish or meat or melon or even a chocolate soufflé (as Mr. Mueller advocated) or any other uncooked, uncut application then you might want to get out the credit card and venture into the world of hand-written labels on oddly-shaped, pretty bottles.

And, really, as far as your choices in the second and especially third categories go it becomes a matter of taste (personally I like my EVOO very fruity). Of course, the only way to know that is to taste them personally which can be an expensive proposition. But as far as the label deciphering game goes, some producers are now listing the acidity levels -- it has to be under .8% to be classified as “Extra-Virgin” -- and as a general rule of thumb, the lower the acidity level, the better the quality of the oil according to the “experts."

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