Olive oil is so simple: in how it tastes, how it’s used, and even in how it’s great in just about everything. When newcomers to the astonishingly rich world of olive oil finally realize there are so many different types, grades, and uses for this luxurious condiment, it can come as quite a surprise!
That’s right: there are far more types of olive oil for cooking than you might think. And yes, there’s far more besides the classic extra virgin olive oil, and each has all sorts of callings and purposes in the cooking world, too.
Don’t know what they are? No problem! Let’s look at some of the most celebrated types of olive oil: what they look like, taste like, how they’re made, and how to best use them in your cookery.
Light, Pure, or Refined Olive Oil
If you stumble upon olive oil labels like “refined,” “pure,” or “light,” these may sound like completely different grades of olive oil from one another. However, they’re all technically the same grade or quality, and could be called “medium grade” olive oils in simpler words.
This quality is made using very fine and delicate filtration (also called a “refinement” process, thus the term “refined”) to produce oil that is food-grade, light in color, gold or yellow in hue (not green), and clean in appearance. This also explains why, besides being called “refined,” these oils are also called “light” or “pure.”
But why are they considered “mid-grade” olive oils, and not high quality?
It’s because they tend to be made using heat (not cold) treatment from ripe olives, but only after the first round of higher quality virgin oils are cold pressed and expelled from the same olives.
As such, these oils aren’t extractions of the olive’s best essences (nor of their famed health benefits) because heat alters quality and flavor. This is also one of the reasons why these refined types of oils are considered lower quality, though not the lowest!
And this doesn’t mean refined oils don’t have great uses and purposes.
Using refined oils does have some advantages. They have a higher smoke point than virgin grades, making them more amenable to roasting, light frying, sautéing, and (especially!) baking. They have more neutral flavor too, great for when you don’t necessarily want that trademark “olive” flavor in everything.
Because they’re not “top-tier” grade, they’re also less expensive! This makes pure, light, or refined grade an excellent cooking oil option, and very likely even better (and more affordable) than virgin grades for heated preparations.
Extra-Light Olive Oil
There’s light olive oil, but what about when you find a label saying “extra-light” olive oil? What does that mean?
Contrary to how it may sound, “light” or “extra-light” (or even the spelling “lite”) doesn’t mean these grades are lower in calories. fat, or that they’re even healthier. In fact, all olive oil has the same amounts of calories and fat, no matter the grade. Keep in mind that all olive oils are 100% fat, while the healthiest oils of all are those of virgin (especially extra virgin) grade.
Extra-light olive oil just means the olive oil is even more refined.
Compared to just “light” olive oil, extra-light means it’s “ultra-refined” to make it even lighter in color and neutral in flavor than most refined, pure, or light olive oils. Despite this extra refinement, extra light olive oil is still considered a “mid-grade” olive oil with a mild flavor and high smoke point.
Extra light grades may have an even higher smoke point than refined oils, making them the very best candidate for baking!
Olive Oil (Yes, Just Olive Oil)
From time to time, you might run into olive oil labels that just say those two words: “olive oil.” No descriptors, no modifiers, no nothing. In that case, what kind of quality can you expect?
According to experts in the industry, if it just says “olive oil” you can probably expect a blend of oils: most likely refined oil (light, pure, or extra-light) with an virgin or extra virgin grade. When you get down to it, this means that the olive oil will be somewhere between middle grade and top shelf.
With some virgin and extra virgin olive oil included, this also means more health benefits! On the downside, this narrows down the ways in which you can use it for optimal flavor and health benefits. It’s probably best for some light roasting and frying, nothing more.
Of all grades of olive oil, pomace oil is the lowest edible quality of all. Nevertheless, it can still be useful in cooking.
Instead of being made from the first or second pressing of olives, pomace grade is in fact made from what could be called the “third” pressing. Or, more accurately, from the residue (olive flesh and pits, sometimes blended together) that remains once the first and second pressings (which lead to light and virgin grades) are complete.
This extraction needs the help of solvents or other physical treatments to happen, which further lowers quality. Though pressing oils from the same set of olives this many times can seem like overkill, there are nevertheless some last bits of oil and water that can still be quite useful (and from a commercial standpoint, these pomace oils help producers get the extra mile and a little more revenue from their olives).
However, pomace oil grade is so poor in quality compared to other grades that they tend to blend them with some refined or virgin oils, or both. It’s best to use this type only for some baking, deep frying, or other high heat cooking only, as it has very little flavor.
Virgin Olive Oil
Virgin olive oils are the highest-grade category of unrefined oils. They might also be called “top-shelf” oils. These are extracted from high quality olives not long after harvesting and using the very best mechanics and processes in the industry.
Cold-pressing techniques are especially important for virgin quality. They leave flavor, color, and health benefits in oils unspoiled. This leads us to one of the best ways to identify a true quality virgin oil: flavor! Virgin oils truly shine when used cold as a dip, drizzling, topping, or finish on various dishes or preparations.
Instead of the plain, neutral olive flavors of pomace, refined, or extra-light grades, virgin oils burst with identifiable flavor notes: fruity, floral, to even pungent or bitter. Some are even crafted with additional flavor notes, like chili or lemon.
While you can lightly cook with virgin olive oils, heating them damages what’s best about them: their amazing taste and health benefits. This makes this grade more expensive, but it’s worth the extra price for the quality.
Virgin grade olive oils are best saved for special occasions and cold dishes. For high heat cooking or baking, however, choose a lower quality oil, or another type of oil altogether.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
“Extra virgin” olive oils (or EVOO) are what could be called the “crème de la crème” of virgin grade. They’re the highest quality of olive oil you can buy, and there’s many differences setting them apart from other olive oils.
Yes, extra virgin still falls within the virgin grade category.
But it’s not always obvious to consumers what sets “extra virgin” apart from “virgin” just by studying a label (especially in the United States, though it’s easier to trust authentic extra virgin labels from Taggia or other regions that have been around for hundreds of years). However, there are some important details you can look at and consider.
To meet the highest olive oil standards, extra virgin grade demands a bit more care and passion from its growers and producers. Besides requiring cold pressing (plus no refinement or treatment), it should only consist of the first pressing of ripe olives immediately after they are harvested: less than 24 hours ideally, and no more than 48 hours afterward (a standard that helps protect flavor and prevent rancidity).
The best extra virgin olive oil producers are very attentive and selective about the quality of each individual olive that goes into their final blends. Experts and connoisseurs could even claim that olive growers themselves take part in the process: air, water, sunlight, nutrients, and other inputs can influence the flavor, quality, and health benefits expected from premium extra virgin.
How Can You Tell It’s Extra Virgin? (Besides The Label)
There’s no surefire way to identify extra virgin, and certainly not by the label alone in most cases. Many companies sell virgin oils (or blends) under the claimed guise of “extra virgin,” and most people would never know the difference.
This is why some companies and third parties test their oils.
Extra virgin grade should have no higher than 0.8% fatty acid content (which includes healthy oleic acids) while anything of virgin grade, on the other hand, can range anywhere from .9 to 4% acidity. This is sometimes included on labels, but not often enough.
Some could call extra virgin the “fine wine” of the olive oil world, which implies that quality can be detected in other ways. One example: most true extra virgin olive oil's have a rich green, gold, or deep yellow hue, and shouldn’t ever be too pale or translucent in color.
Otherwise, the quality of extra virgin can indeed be tasted by some— and you don’t have to be a connoisseur to detect it! Some claim the best extra virgin olive oil might have a touch of detectable “spicy” flavor or heat (including our very own Michelin star chef, Dominique Le Stanc!).
Ultimately, however, extra virgin comes in rainbow of subtle flavors, and what’s considered the “best” can all come down to preference (yes, just like wine).
Want to know more about your olive oil’s quality? The best way to know is to ask your olive oil company directly about their true extra virgin. True crafters and growers will passionately bubble over all about the creation process, and it’s a sure sign of a high quality, carefully made product.
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