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Olive Oil 101 | Everything You Need to Know about Buying, Storing and Cooking with Liquid Gold

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Olives in a burlap sack

Olive oil… the liquid gold of the culinary world. This renowned oil has been a staple of Mediterranean cuisine for centuries and has certainly stood the test of time. It's not surprising it's one of the most common ingredients found in our cooking classes. Shortages in the Mediterranean have driven olive oil prices to an all time high. With the demand and price for olive oil continuing to rise, it’s important to know what type of olive oil you should buy for your cooking needs so you can minimize your spending and maximize your flavor. Read below to learn everything from picking the best olive oil, to what it is, to how it’s made, to EVOO vs. virgin vs, pure, and more. Olive Oil 101 here we come.


Table of Contents

What is Olive Oil?

How is Olive Oil Produced?

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Virgin Olive Oil

Regular Olive Oil

But What About Light Olive Oil?

What to Look For When Buying Olive Oil

Olive Oil & Color

Main Producers of Olive Oil

Conclusion

Field of Olive trees, Olea europaea

What is Olive Oil?

Olive oil is just as it sounds, the oil extracted from the fruit of the olive tree, Olea europaea, that is native to the Mediterranean Basin. The process involves pressing olives to release their natural oils, resulting in the golden-green elixir we all know and love. Which leads us to our next question…

A man holding a handful of olives over a heaping basket of beautiful olives

How is Olive Oil Produced?

Distinctions in types of olive oil vary not just by type of olive used, but by how the oil is produced as well. Always wondered what distinguishes extra virgin olive oil from regular olive oil? We’ve got you covered. First step, the harvest.


Olive oil production begins with the autumn harvest of ripe olives. Following the harvest, the olives undergo a thorough cleaning process to remove leaves, stems, and other debris. After this, the oil production begins. The cleaned olives are either pressed or milled to form a paste. Traditionally, this was done using stone mills, but now modern olive oil production often involves stainless steel rollers or millstone crushers, as their non-porous surfaces result in a thick, smooth paste.


This paste then undergoes malaxation, and while that may sound like a fancy, confusing word, it just means the process of churning the paste to break up the emulsion and separate the oil. Extraction of the oil from the paste is typically achieved nowadays through centrifugation, a method involving spinning the mixture at such a high velocity that it separates the oil from the water and solids. This means that the term “pressing” is actually somewhat antiquated when it comes to olive oil production, as with centrifugation there is no need to actually press the olives. “Milling” would be the more correct term for this efficient way of production. The resulting oil then undergoes a series of additional steps, including separation, decantation, and filtration.


For extra virgin and virgin olive oil, the production ends here, but refined olive oil will undergo further treatment to remove flaws. Finally, the olive oil is stored in appropriate containers to protect it from light and air, and voila! Your olive oil is made.


Now that you have an understanding of the production, let’s dissect the various grades of olive oil so you know which variety is best for you.


Grades of Olive Oil

Chart on the differences between Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Virgin Olive Oil and Pure Olive Oil

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Extra Virgin Olive Oil is the highest grade olive oil you can buy and as such, the most expensive variety you will find at the store. Don't be afraid to spend a bit of money on a bottle because chance are, you'll use less of it if you follow our tips. It must undergo a rigorous process to earn the title “extra virgin”. Below are some of the key distinctions that make EVOO the renowned oil that it is.

  • The Use of Heat in Processing: One of the most important aspects of EVOO production is that no heat or chemicals are used during extraction, hence the term “cold-pressed”. Ensuring that no heat is used allows the oil to retain maximum flavor, freshness, and nutrition. This means it is considered an unrefined oil.

  • Acidity: Another key factor that determines whether an oil is labeled as “extra virgin” “virgin”, or just as plain ole olive oil is the level of oleic acid found in the product. To be considered extra virgin, an oil must contain no more than 0.8% oleic acid according to the International Olive Council. Essentially, the lower the oleaic acid is, the higher quality the olive oil is. This natural acidity of the oil is determined by how long the olives are left on the tree before harvesting and the time between harvest and extraction. As such EVOO must be pressed between 24 to 72 hours of harvesting.

How Best to Use Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Heating olive oil actually causes it to lose some of its flavor, so it is best to use lesser quality olive oils for cooking, sautéing, and grilling - otherwise you’re simply throwing money into the skillet! EVOO also has a lower smoke point, meaning it will burn at lower temperatures than other oils will. It is best to use your EVOO for dressings, marinades, dips, cold dishes, or as a finishing oil. This way you are ensuring you are getting the maximum flavor and nutritional content from your oil and not wasting the product (and your money!).

Olive oil in a glass bottle on the countertop

Virgin Olive Oil

The olive oil one grade below extra virgin olive oil is aptly named virgin olive oil. While this is a less superior oil in terms of quality, it is a good middle ground for those hoping to save money and not totally compromise on flavor. Read below to see what classifies virgin olive oil and how best to use it.

  • The Use of Heat in Processing: Just like EVOO, for an oil to be considered “Virgin”, no heat or chemicals can be used in the extraction process. It is also considered an unrefined oil.

  • Acidity: Virgin olive oil has higher natural acidity levels than EVOO, ranging from 0.8% - 2%. If the olives are harvested too late or left to sit too long before extraction, they will have a higher level of acidity and cannot be labeled as “extra virgin”.

How Best to Use Virgin Olive Oil

Think of virgin olive oil as EVOO’s cheaper and less tasty cousin. Though it is not as ubiquitous on supermarket shelves in the U.S., some varieties still contain a good flavor (though it will not be as robust and intense as EVOO). If you find a variety you like, use it in a similar way to EVOO. It can be used for dressings and marinades, or is a good option for low heat cooking.

Golden coloured Olive Oil on a cutting board with olives sitting next to it

Regular "Pure" Olive Oil

This might also be labeled as “pure olive oil” or just simply “olive oil” but for the sake of this we will refer to it as regular olive oil. This is the lowest grade of olive oil and as such is the cheapest you will find at the store. The key distinction between regular olive oil and virgin or extra virgin olive oil, is that regular oil contains “refined oil”. This refinement results in both a lack of olive flavor and the vast majority of the nutrients and minerals found in EVOO. However this lighter flavored oil certainly serves its purpose. In fact, for a lot of cooking situations, you should ditch the EVOO and simply buy a bottle of the cheap stuff. Read on to discover what distinguishes regular olive oil and how to best use it in your kitchen.

  • The Use of Heat in Processing: With refined oil, high temperatures and/or chemicals are used in the centrifugation process. While these high temperatures increase the yield of oil from the paste, they result in a loss of taste and nutrients. Regular olive oil is often a mix of virgin olive oil and refined olive oil.

  • Acidity: Regular olive oil will have an acidity less than 1%. The acidity level of regular olive oil is not a good metric of quality as with extra virgin and virgin olive oils however, as the low acidity is due to the refinement process which also strips the flavor and health benefits of the oil.

  • Color & Flavor: Regular olive oil will have a lighter hue and more neutral flavor.

How Best to Use Regular Olive Oil

As we mentioned earlier, there are many situations where regular olive oil is actually preferable. The main reason for this being that it has a higher smoke point. This means that it can withstand higher temperatures while cooking before the oil will burn. So the next time you want to grill or sauté something and olive oil is your preferred oil to use, choose pure olive oil. You’re better off to save your money and use the savings on an extra special bottle of EEVO. Cha ching!


But What About Light Olive Oil?

Though the name is confusing, light olive oil is not lighter in calories or fat. It is simply a marketing tactic and references the oil’s light color and flavor. Like regular olive oil, it is a refined oil so it has a higher smoke point and is a good choice for grilling, sautéing, or frying.

Olives being produced and about to be pressed to make olive oil

What to Look for When Buying Olive Oil

As we mentioned earlier, the most important thing to note when buying olive oil is what you intend to use it for. As a general rule of thumb, use EVOO for dressings, marinades, cold dishes, or as a finishing oil and regular or light olive oil for grilling, sautéing, or frying. In the realm of EVOO though, if you are looking to not just get a good oil but a great one, here are some things you should look for.


Stick to Dark Bottles

Light is olive oil’s worst enemy. So when at the supermarket remember this: never buy olive oil in a clear glass bottle! It is always best to stick to a dark bottle or (even better) an opaque tin. (P.S. EVOO’s other great enemy is heat! Be sure to store your oil in a cool, dark place. I.e. not next to the stove.)


Check for the Harvest Date

The finest producers of EVOO will always proudly display the harvest date on their bottles. Olive oil is not like wine, so sadly it does not in fact get better with age. This means that the fresher, the better. It typically has a shelf life of 12-18 months from the harvest date and in order to maintain maximum flavor should be used within 6 months of opening.


Check for the country of origin

Now this is a great trick to avoid being duped and not buy a fake. Companies are legally required to label an oil’s source but they have a sneaky loophole to dupe consumers. So if you see a suspiciously cheap bottle labeled as a “Product of Spain”, trust your gut and get skeptical. Essentially, though they must label the country of origin, this doesn’t mean the origin of the olives or even the oil, it simply means where the oil was bottled. So companies can buy inferior oil from all around the world, slap a “Product of Italy” label on it, and essentially, scam you. Ouch. To avoid this, look for the initials of the true country of origin on the back label: IT for Italy, GR for Greece, ES for Spain, and so on.

Dark green olive oil compared to golden color olive oil

Olive Oil & Color

Contrary to popular belief, the color of olive oil is actually not a direct indicator of its quality. It is true that refined olive oils will have a lighter color than unrefined olive oils (which is likely where the myth began that the darker the olive oil the higher the quality), but within the world of EVOO, the colors can vary greatly while the quality remains high. In fact, professional olive oil tasters (yes, there are olive oil sommeliers!) must taste olive oils using a dark blue glass so that they cannot see the color. So if the color of olive oil isn’t an indicator of quality, what exactly does it tell us about the oil?


It turns out the color of your olive oil can actually tell you more about the taste than the quality. This is because of two factors: chlorophyll and carotenoids. The sooner in the season an olive is harvested, the higher the level of chlorophyll will be (aka what’s responsible for turning plants green). This results in greener oils that have a more grassy and robust flavor. Oils that are more golden/yellow hue however are likely harvested later in the season and contain higher levels of carotenoids (aka what makes plants yellow/red). These oils will have a more delicate and buttery flavor.


Things like climate, time, and oxidation will also affect the color of your oils but remember, the color does not determine the quality. Whether it's dark green or golden yellow, a good oil is a good oil.

Olive tree at sunset

Main Producers of Olive Oil

It’s best to buy olive oil from a single farm, but at the very least olive oil from a single country. And while Italy may be the most famous producer of olive oil, there are many other countries that produce just as good (if not better!) olive oil. According to the World Olive Oil Awards, some of the best rated olive oils in the world of course come from Italy, but also Spain, Greece, Turkey, Croatia, Tunisia, and even the United States. So expand your olive oil horizons. Your new favorite EVOO just may come from an unexpected place!

Closeup of green and black olives and their leaves from a harvest in Greece

Conclusion

Whether you’re buying olive oil from Spain, Tunisia, Italy, or Greece, you now know how to spot a good oil from a great one, how it’s made, and when to use which type of oil. Happy completion of Olive Oil 101! Now put that knowledge to good use and let’s get cooking!



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Olive Oil 101 | Everything You Need to Know about Buying, Storing and Cooking with Liquid Gold


Olives in a burlap sack

Olive oil… the liquid gold of the culinary world. This renowned oil has been a staple of Mediterranean cuisine for centuries and has certainly stood the test of time. It's not surprising it's one of the most common ingredients found in our cooking classes. Shortages in the Mediterranean have driven olive oil prices to an all time high. With the demand and price for olive oil continuing to rise, it’s important to know what type of olive oil you should buy for your cooking needs so you can minimize your spending and maximize your flavor. Read below to learn everything from picking the best olive oil, to what it is, to how it’s made, to EVOO vs. virgin vs, pure, and more. Olive Oil 101 here we come.


Table of Contents

Field of Olive trees, Olea europaea

What is Olive Oil?

Olive oil is just as it sounds, the oil extracted from the fruit of the olive tree, Olea europaea, that is native to the Mediterranean Basin. The process involves pressing olives to release their natural oils, resulting in the golden-green elixir we all know and love. Which leads us to our next question…

A man holding a handful of olives over a heaping basket of beautiful olives

How is Olive Oil Produced?

Distinctions in types of olive oil vary not just by type of olive used, but by how the oil is produced as well. Always wondered what distinguishes extra virgin olive oil from regular olive oil? We’ve got you covered. First step, the harvest.


Olive oil production begins with the autumn harvest of ripe olives. Following the harvest, the olives undergo a thorough cleaning process to remove leaves, stems, and other debris. After this, the oil production begins. The cleaned olives are either pressed or milled to form a paste. Traditionally, this was done using stone mills, but now modern olive oil production often involves stainless steel rollers or millstone crushers, as their non-porous surfaces result in a thick, smooth paste.


This paste then undergoes malaxation, and while that may sound like a fancy, confusing word, it just means the process of churning the paste to break up the emulsion and separate the oil. Extraction of the oil from the paste is typically achieved nowadays through centrifugation, a method involving spinning the mixture at such a high velocity that it separates the oil from the water and solids. This means that the term “pressing” is actually somewhat antiquated when it comes to olive oil production, as with centrifugation there is no need to actually press the olives. “Milling” would be the more correct term for this efficient way of production. The resulting oil then undergoes a series of additional steps, including separation, decantation, and filtration.


For extra virgin and virgin olive oil, the production ends here, but refined olive oil will undergo further treatment to remove flaws. Finally, the olive oil is stored in appropriate containers to protect it from light and air, and voila! Your olive oil is made.


Now that you have an understanding of the production, let’s dissect the various grades of olive oil so you know which variety is best for you.


Grades of Olive Oil

Chart on the differences between Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Virgin Olive Oil and Pure Olive Oil

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Extra Virgin Olive Oil is the highest grade olive oil you can buy and as such, the most expensive variety you will find at the store. Don't be afraid to spend a bit of money on a bottle because chance are, you'll use less of it if you follow our tips. It must undergo a rigorous process to earn the title “extra virgin”. Below are some of the key distinctions that make EVOO the renowned oil that it is.

  • The Use of Heat in Processing: One of the most important aspects of EVOO production is that no heat or chemicals are used during extraction, hence the term “cold-pressed”. Ensuring that no heat is used allows the oil to retain maximum flavor, freshness, and nutrition. This means it is considered an unrefined oil.

  • Acidity: Another key factor that determines whether an oil is labeled as “extra virgin” “virgin”, or just as plain ole olive oil is the level of oleic acid found in the product. To be considered extra virgin, an oil must contain no more than 0.8% oleic acid according to the International Olive Council. Essentially, the lower the oleaic acid is, the higher quality the olive oil is. This natural acidity of the oil is determined by how long the olives are left on the tree before harvesting and the time between harvest and extraction. As such EVOO must be pressed between 24 to 72 hours of harvesting.

How Best to Use Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Heating olive oil actually causes it to lose some of its flavor, so it is best to use lesser quality olive oils for cooking, sautéing, and grilling - otherwise you’re simply throwing money into the skillet! EVOO also has a lower smoke point, meaning it will burn at lower temperatures than other oils will. It is best to use your EVOO for dressings, marinades, dips, cold dishes, or as a finishing oil. This way you are ensuring you are getting the maximum flavor and nutritional content from your oil and not wasting the product (and your money!).

Olive oil in a glass bottle on the countertop

Virgin Olive Oil

The olive oil one grade below extra virgin olive oil is aptly named virgin olive oil. While this is a less superior oil in terms of quality, it is a good middle ground for those hoping to save money and not totally compromise on flavor. Read below to see what classifies virgin olive oil and how best to use it.

  • The Use of Heat in Processing: Just like EVOO, for an oil to be considered “Virgin”, no heat or chemicals can be used in the extraction process. It is also considered an unrefined oil.

  • Acidity: Virgin olive oil has higher natural acidity levels than EVOO, ranging from 0.8% - 2%. If the olives are harvested too late or left to sit too long before extraction, they will have a higher level of acidity and cannot be labeled as “extra virgin”.

How Best to Use Virgin Olive Oil

Think of virgin olive oil as EVOO’s cheaper and less tasty cousin. Though it is not as ubiquitous on supermarket shelves in the U.S., some varieties still contain a good flavor (though it will not be as robust and intense as EVOO). If you find a variety you like, use it in a similar way to EVOO. It can be used for dressings and marinades, or is a good option for low heat cooking.

Golden coloured Olive Oil on a cutting board with olives sitting next to it

Regular "Pure" Olive Oil

This might also be labeled as “pure olive oil” or just simply “olive oil” but for the sake of this we will refer to it as regular olive oil. This is the lowest grade of olive oil and as such is the cheapest you will find at the store. The key distinction between regular olive oil and virgin or extra virgin olive oil, is that regular oil contains “refined oil”. This refinement results in both a lack of olive flavor and the vast majority of the nutrients and minerals found in EVOO. However this lighter flavored oil certainly serves its purpose. In fact, for a lot of cooking situations, you should ditch the EVOO and simply buy a bottle of the cheap stuff. Read on to discover what distinguishes regular olive oil and how to best use it in your kitchen.

  • The Use of Heat in Processing: With refined oil, high temperatures and/or chemicals are used in the centrifugation process. While these high temperatures increase the yield of oil from the paste, they result in a loss of taste and nutrients. Regular olive oil is often a mix of virgin olive oil and refined olive oil.

  • Acidity: Regular olive oil will have an acidity less than 1%. The acidity level of regular olive oil is not a good metric of quality as with extra virgin and virgin olive oils however, as the low acidity is due to the refinement process which also strips the flavor and health benefits of the oil.

  • Color & Flavor: Regular olive oil will have a lighter hue and more neutral flavor.

How Best to Use Regular Olive Oil

As we mentioned earlier, there are many situations where regular olive oil is actually preferable. The main reason for this being that it has a higher smoke point. This means that it can withstand higher temperatures while cooking before the oil will burn. So the next time you want to grill or sauté something and olive oil is your preferred oil to use, choose pure olive oil. You’re better off to save your money and use the savings on an extra special bottle of EEVO. Cha ching!


But What About Light Olive Oil?

Though the name is confusing, light olive oil is not lighter in calories or fat. It is simply a marketing tactic and references the oil’s light color and flavor. Like regular olive oil, it is a refined oil so it has a higher smoke point and is a good choice for grilling, sautéing, or frying.

Olives being produced and about to be pressed to make olive oil

What to Look for When Buying Olive Oil

As we mentioned earlier, the most important thing to note when buying olive oil is what you intend to use it for. As a general rule of thumb, use EVOO for dressings, marinades, cold dishes, or as a finishing oil and regular or light olive oil for grilling, sautéing, or frying. In the realm of EVOO though, if you are looking to not just get a good oil but a great one, here are some things you should look for.


Stick to Dark Bottles

Light is olive oil’s worst enemy. So when at the supermarket remember this: never buy olive oil in a clear glass bottle! It is always best to stick to a dark bottle or (even better) an opaque tin. (P.S. EVOO’s other great enemy is heat! Be sure to store your oil in a cool, dark place. I.e. not next to the stove.)


Check for the Harvest Date

The finest producers of EVOO will always proudly display the harvest date on their bottles. Olive oil is not like wine, so sadly it does not in fact get better with age. This means that the fresher, the better. It typically has a shelf life of 12-18 months from the harvest date and in order to maintain maximum flavor should be used within 6 months of opening.


Check for the country of origin

Now this is a great trick to avoid being duped and not buy a fake. Companies are legally required to label an oil’s source but they have a sneaky loophole to dupe consumers. So if you see a suspiciously cheap bottle labeled as a “Product of Spain”, trust your gut and get skeptical. Essentially, though they must label the country of origin, this doesn’t mean the origin of the olives or even the oil, it simply means where the oil was bottled. So companies can buy inferior oil from all around the world, slap a “Product of Italy” label on it, and essentially, scam you. Ouch. To avoid this, look for the initials of the true country of origin on the back label: IT for Italy, GR for Greece, ES for Spain, and so on.

Dark green olive oil compared to golden color olive oil

Olive Oil & Color

Contrary to popular belief, the color of olive oil is actually not a direct indicator of its quality. It is true that refined olive oils will have a lighter color than unrefined olive oils (which is likely where the myth began that the darker the olive oil the higher the quality), but within the world of EVOO, the colors can vary greatly while the quality remains high. In fact, professional olive oil tasters (yes, there are olive oil sommeliers!) must taste olive oils using a dark blue glass so that they cannot see the color. So if the color of olive oil isn’t an indicator of quality, what exactly does it tell us about the oil?


It turns out the color of your olive oil can actually tell you more about the taste than the quality. This is because of two factors: chlorophyll and carotenoids. The sooner in the season an olive is harvested, the higher the level of chlorophyll will be (aka what’s responsible for turning plants green). This results in greener oils that have a more grassy and robust flavor. Oils that are more golden/yellow hue however are likely harvested later in the season and contain higher levels of carotenoids (aka what makes plants yellow/red). These oils will have a more delicate and buttery flavor.


Things like climate, time, and oxidation will also affect the color of your oils but remember, the color does not determine the quality. Whether it's dark green or golden yellow, a good oil is a good oil.

Olive tree at sunset

Main Producers of Olive Oil

It’s best to buy olive oil from a single farm, but at the very least olive oil from a single country. And while Italy may be the most famous producer of olive oil, there are many other countries that produce just as good (if not better!) olive oil. According to the World Olive Oil Awards, some of the best rated olive oils in the world of course come from Italy, but also Spain, Greece, Turkey, Croatia, Tunisia, and even the United States. So expand your olive oil horizons. Your new favorite EVOO just may come from an unexpected place!

Closeup of green and black olives and their leaves from a harvest in Greece

Conclusion

Whether you’re buying olive oil from Spain, Tunisia, Italy, or Greece, you now know how to spot a good oil from a great one, how it’s made, and when to use which type of oil. Happy completion of Olive Oil 101! Now put that knowledge to good use and let’s get cooking!



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