Once described by Homer as “liquid gold”, olive oil is one of the most ancient and highly-valued cooking essentials in the world. The olive tree was cultivated even before the first written language was invented, and its oil was first used as lamp fuel and in religious ceremonies.
Despite its widespread use and value, olive oil is also one of the most misunderstood ingredients. What’s the difference between extra virgin and regular olive oil? What’s the best type of olive oil for cooking?
To clear up some of the confusion, we decided to create a complete guide of the different types of olive oil.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
The “extra” in extra virgin olive oil signifies that it’s the highest grade of olive oil. Extra virgin status isn’t attained easily, but rather must meet strict standards in the cultivation, harvest, and processing of the oil.
While lesser-grade olive oil producers use olives after they’ve fallen from the tree, makers of higher-end olive oil will rake or brush olives from the trees and catch the fruit in nets, to prevent bruising and to make sure the olives used are perfectly ripe. In some cases, the finest olives are hand-picked from the batch, ensuring that the oil that’s extracted has the best flavor possible. Because olives begin oxidizing immediately after leaving the tree, the finest oils are pressed within 24 hours of picking.
Heat exposure at any point of the olive oil production process can degrade its flavor, making cold-pressing the absolute best way to protect flavor. Extra virgin olive oil producers must monitor every step of the oil-creation process. This rigorous process is what lends extra virgin olive oil its fresh, clean taste.
In order to be deemed extra virgin, olive oil must meet several rigorous tests. In fact, olive oil is the only cooking oil in the world that is graded by internationally recognized standards.
The first standard that extra virgin olive oil must meet is the acid test. Oleic acid content lends olive oil a bitter, disagreeable taste. Therefore the lower the oleic acid content, the better taste the olive oil has. Extra virgin olive oil is legally required to have a free oleic acid content of less than 0.8 percent.
The second test is sensory, which is conducted by a panel of olive oil experts who determine whether the oil has any flavor defects. The oil must pass both the acid and sensory test in order to qualify as extra virgin.
These rigorous standards and the meticulous care of fine olive oil producers make extra virgin olive oil one of the most delicious cooking essentials, and an ingredient every cooking enthusiast has on hand at all times.
Extra virgin olive oil can be used in a variety of dishes. Despite some false claims, extra olive oil is actually wonderful for cooking. Use it to transform chicken into a tender masterpiece, sautée fresh vegetables, or make an insanely rich dough.
Extra virgin olive oil is also a go-to for dishes that don’t require heat. Use it as a base for salad dressing, drizzle it on soup, or simply mix it with ground pepper and spices to create a dip for fresh bread.
Virgin Olive Oil
The differentiating factor of virgin and extra virgin olive oil is the acidity level. While extra virgin olive oil must have an oleic acid content of less than 0.8 percent, virgin olive oil falls between 0.8 and 2 percent. Oleic fatty acid speaks to the condition of the fruit at the time of pressing. The higher fatty acid level, the greater chance that the fruit was damaged, overripe, overheated, or wasn’t pressed in a timely manner.
Compared with extra virgin olive oil, virgin olive oil tends to have a milder taste. While extra virgin olive oil is preferred for all types of cooking, virgin olive oil may be substituted in cooked meals, since the flavor of the oil is subdued when heated. While virgin olive can be used on cold meals such as salads or bread dipping, the flavor will be far inferior to that of extra virgin olive oil.
Refined Olive Oil
Refined olive oil is extracted from black, or ripe, olives. It is made by processing virgin olive oil with heat and other agents to extract any flaws that would make the oil unsafe for consumption. Because of this processing, refined olive oil is virtually odorless and flavorless.
Refined olive oil is made for bulk consumption, and has an acidity level of no more than 3 percent.
Pure Olive Oil
Pure olive oil is a close relative of refined olive oil. Because of chemical and physical processes leave refined olive oil virtually flavorless, it is sometimes blended with a small portion of extra virgin olive oil to add flavor. The result of this blend is pure olive oil.
Pure olive oil has an acidity level between 2.0 and 3.3 percent.
Olive Pomace Oil
Olive pomace oil is a low grade of olive oil. After olives are pressed, there is still some oil residue left on the olive pomace. This can be extracted and combined with virgin olive oil to create olive pomace oil.
Light or “Lite” Olive Oil
Despite its name, light or “lite” olive oil isn’t lower in caloric value than its virgin counterparts. Its name instead refers to the oil’s lighter color and neutral flavor. Instead of a dark green hue of extra virgin olive oil, light olive oil is yellow in color. Light olive oil is a type of refined oil, produced by heating regular olive oil. It has a longer shelf life and higher smoke point than other types of olive oil, but due to the heating process lacks the same nutritional benefits.
Due to its nutrient-preserving production process and rigorous quality standards, extra virgin olive oil is by far the healthiest type of cooking oil.
Olives and their oils are packed with omega-3 fatty acids, which have been shown to reduce the risk of heart disease. Compared with other cooking oils, extra virgin olive oil is relatively low in saturated fat. Olive oil is a staple in Mediterranean diet, which was recently named the healthiest diet in the world.
La Merenda’s Extra Virgin Olive Oils
Our gourmet extra virgin olive oils are made with only the highest quality olives from Italy. All extra virgin olive oils in our shop have been specially curated by our Michelin star chef Dominique Le Stanc.
Whether you choose to use our olive oils for daily cooking or as a delicate finish on special meals, the subtle flavors of our oils are sure to delight and impress.