All olive oils are not created equal
What does extra virgin mean to you as a consumer?
To use as a condiment (unheated)
To brown, stir fry, or fry with
To enjoy its health benefits
To use on your skin
To make soap
To burn in an oil lamp
If it seems too cheap….
Extra virgin, virgin, light, pomace, filtered, cold pressed, stone milled, organic, …. The list goes on and on. If you are confused about which olive oil to buy, you are not alone. At the Olive Oil Source, we think that there are a few keys to choosing the right olive oil: first is knowing the types of olive oil available, the second is considering what you will use it for. Learning the different grades of olive oil and their characteristics will help you make sense of what you read on labels. You will find useful information on our Product Grade Definitions page and in our Olictionary.
Next decide which type of oil will best suit your intended purpose. Are you buying oil to drizzle on a piece of roasted country bread, to use on your skin, to make soap, or to burn in an oil lamp? Different uses may require different oils. The question is: Which oil for what? Here is an attempt to point you in the right direction.
Although there are many grades and definitions, we would like to emphasize only a few points that we think are most relevant to you as a consumer. The most important factor is to understand how the oil was obtained from the olive. Virgin olive oil is obtained from the olive only, using solely mechanical or other physical means, in conditions, particularly thermal conditions, which do not alter the oil in any way. It is pure fruit juice, so to speak. It also meets a set of chemical standards.
Refined olive oil is obtained by treating low quality or defective virgin olive oil with the use of charcoal and other chemical and physical filters. An obsolete equivalent is "pure olive oil". Note that no solvents are used in the refining process.
Though it may be confusing, you should be aware that the term olive oil, when used alone, refers to a blend of refined olive oil and virgin olive oil.
Pomace is the ground flesh and pits left after the extraction process. According to the IOOC, all olive-pomace oils are obtained by treating it with solvents or other physical treatments. Within the olive-pomace oils category, oil specifically labeled as olive-pomace oil is a blend of virgin olive oil and refined pomace oil.
WHAT DOES EXTRA VIRGIN MEAN TO YOU AS A CONSUMER?
Extra virgin is the highest grade of olive oil. As with all virgin olive oils, it is made mechanically, without the use of chemicals or excessive heat and meets some chemical and organoleptic standards.
The chemical characteristics of extra virgin olive oil (as with all vegetable oils) give an indication of the care with which it was made and stored: how the fruit was grown, transported and harvested, how it was milled into oil, and how the oil was packaged and bottled. Chemical testing can also help determine if the oil is adulterated. The chemical standards for extra virgin olive oil are the highest of all the grades and, as such, offer a minimum guarantee of quality.
In addition to chemical characteristics, extra virgin olive oil also has certain organoleptic characteristics: it does not have taste defects yet is not totally flavorless. This does not guarantee it will taste good to you, however.
Having said all that, it is important to recognize that there are huge differences among extra virgin olive oils in terms of their quality, taste, aroma, color, health benefits, shelf life, presentation, and or course their price. Extra virgin olive oils can be anything from very delicate and mellow to quite bitter and pungent. Their anti-oxidant content varies considerably.
It is sometimes hard to tell just from the label what you are looking at on the shelf, even if the oil is labeled extra virgin. You cannot even be certain that the oil is truly extra virgin as, at this point in time, there is no federal standard to guarantee that oil labeled as extra virgin is indeed extra virgin. The USDA is working on new standards. New laws now exist in some states. The California Olive Oil Council certifies oils as extra virgin. Look for the COOC seal and try to buy oil from the most recent harvest. In addition, there are many claims made on labels such as first pressed, cold pressed, stone milled, hand crafted… The list is as long as the imagination of the marketing people. Use our Olictionary to understand which terms are meaningful, obsolete, or totally meaningless.
Finally, as we are often asked for a sound bite description of what extra virgin means, we would say that Extra Virgin = High Quality Olive Juice + Good Taste.
TO USE AS A CONDIMENT (UNHEATED)
A high quality extra virgin olive oil is perfect as a condiment, drizzled over fish, meat, steamed vegetables or baked potatoes, in salad dressings, as a bread dipper, as the base for mayonnaise and uncooked sauces, or rubbed on a piece of bread, to name only a few examples. Check out some of our recipes for more ideas. As the oil is left unheated, you reap the full benefits of its flavor and aroma, as well as of its health qualities. You won’t use very much so it is well worth the higher price of a gourmet extra virgin olive oil.
Think of extra virgin olive oil as you would of wine. Pair it with foods, find the right match. Use a mild to medium strength oil for salad dressings or as a condiment over mild food, such as mozzarella. Switch to a robust olive oil to drizzle over fresh tomatoes or a hearty dish. Use your imagination to create various mixes of flavors you like. More and more stores offer olive oil tasting and sampling. Take advantage of it to decide which oils you like the most. In the end, that is what matters. See our How to Taste Olive Oil section to learn more about tasting.
Storage Tip: as light and heat are detrimental to the oil, keep your oil in a dark, cool place, away from the stove. Dark glass protects the oil from light, including halogen and fluorescent lights, much better than clear glass. Beware of clear bottles of olive oil on the top shelf at the store.
TO BROWN, STIR FRY, OR FRY WITH
If you have read our Heating Olive Oil section, you know that there are two things to consider in choosing an oil for this purpose. The first one is that, among virgin olive oils, extra virgin oil has the highest smoke point (that is, it tolerates high heat), but this point varies even among extra virgin olive oils depending on their acidity.
The second consideration is that heating the oil for frying will destroy much of its flavor and aroma, so there is no point in buying an expensive oil. We suggest using extra virgin (no point in buying a Best of Show oil, though) or virgin olive oil for browning or sautéing, and a cheap, flavorless oil with a high smoke point for frying - something like canola, soy or peanut oil.
TO ENJOY ITS HEALTH BENEFITS
If you are especially interested in the health benefit aspects of olive oil, the best choice is extra virgin olive oil, preferably a very high quality one, as it is likely that its production method left most anti-oxidants and other healthy components intact. The more recently the oil was made, the better, so make sure to pick one with a harvesting or “Best By” date. We recommend buying an extra virgin olive oil certified by the COOC.
One of the greatest benefits of extra virgin olive oil is its antioxidant content. Keep in mind, however, that antioxidants in olive oil are bitter. The higher the antioxidant content, the more bitter the oil will be. This may be in direct contradiction with either your personal taste or an optimum food pairing: if you drizzle a very bitter extra virgin olive oil on mozzarella, for instance, or use it to make mayonnaise, the olive oil bitterness may completely overpower the cheese or the food you are eating with the mayonnaise. On the other hand, a garlic and olive oil pasta dish can work very well with a bitter oil.
TO USE ON YOUR SKIN
Olive oil has been used for thousand of years as a beauty product for both skin and hair. If you use it as a moisturizer, we recommend a high quality extra virgin olive oil, as you will use very little. Pure and light olive may have been chemically processed. Some people pour some olive oil in their bath water: a good choice for this is a virgin or refined olive oil.
TO MAKE SOAP
Most people use pomace or refined oil to make olive oil soap because of their lower price and better saponification properties. If you use a virgin olive oil, make certain that the oil is relatively fresh, otherwise, your soap may develop DOS, aka the Dreaded Orange Spots. The orange spots show up on the soap bars a few weeks after they are produced if the oil is too old, even if it looks normal and does not smell or appear rancid.
TO BURN IN AN OIL LAMP
People have used olive oil with cotton or linen wicks to cleanse the air around them and to keep flames burning for light for thousand of years. Use pomace oil or any kind of cheap olive oil.
TO USE AROUND THE HOUSE
There are hundreds of other uses for olive oil. We recommend reading The Passionate Olive: 101 Things to Do with Olive Oil, by Carol Firenze.
IF IT SEEMS TOO CHEAP…
It is important to understand that many things can be done in the process of making olive oil to decrease production costs and increase yield. Most of these result in lowering the quality of the product. You will see a wide difference in the price per ounce of extra virgin olive oils on the shelf. While there seems to be no upper limit to what some producers charge for their oil, it is definitely the case that extra virgin olive oil is not cheap to produce. We think that a very rough rule of thumb is that, if the oil is less than $14.00 for a 750ml bottle (like a bottle of wine), the chances are high that the oil is not extra virgin.