Olive oil comes in a lot of varieties and I think there are a lot of misconceptions and confusion about what the various grades and varieties are or what the differences are. Here is a bit of information I found on Wikipedia:
First - the USA doesn't follow the same grading standards as other countries which is no surprise since they usually have their own system in place for most things (imperial vs. metric anyone?). I am going to talk about the standards the rest of the world follows which are in line with the International Olive Council (IOC). For more info on the USDA naming conventions and grades, see the Wikipedia page linked above.
The following grades of Olive oil are available:
- Extra-Virgin Olive Oil: The lowest level of acidity and judged to be the most superior tasting Olive oil. It is typically used in applications such as salad dressings, dipping or other uses where the oil flavour is the star of the show.
- Virgin Olive Oil: Slightly higher acidity than extra-virgin olive oil and judged to have a good taste, though not as superior tasting as extra-virgin.
- Pure Olive Oil: Typically a blend of virgin olive oil and refined olive oil. The flavour will not be as good as virgin olive oils and will not be suitable for culinary uses where the flavour of the oil is intended to be the star. Olive oil connoisseurs do not think highly of any products using refined olive oils and as such, wouldn't recommend such an oil grade to be used for any culinary exploits unless using at higher temperatures (see more information about this in post below).
- Olive Oil: Blend of virgin and refined oils. Acidity level is higher than that of it's primarily virgin counterparts and the oil is judged not to have a strong olive flavour. Also considered to be a sub-par option by olive oil connoisseurs.
You may have noticed the terms virgin and refined and been wondering what they mean. I know I was! According to Wikipedia:
- Virgin Oil indicates that the olives have been pressed to extract the oil and that no heat or chemicals have been applied in the process. No surprise that virgin processed olive oil contains the highest levels of polyphenols and antioxidants and therefore has more health benefits than its refined counterpart.
- Refined oil means that the extraction process is controlled by chemicals which is typically done to improve the taste and smell of lower quality oil.
One other thing to be aware of is that bottles containing the labels Pure, Light and Extra-Light olive oil are all terms to describe refined oil types. The light and extra-light labelled oils do not have less calories or fat than regular olive oil contrary to popular belief. They are simply light on flavour due to a being chemically refined oil.
Moral of the story: Look for cold-pressed, extra-virgin olive oil. It is the best option for cooking because it tastes the best and doesn't contain chemicals or other processing techniques that cause the nutrients or quality of the oil to breakdown. It is also healthier because it retains the most antioxidants and nutrients despite the processing of the olives during the extraction process.
Olive oil is best used for applications that do not require much heat application such as salad dressings, drizzling on finished pasta dishes or for dipping fresh bread into. The taste of olive oil is impacted mainly by three things:
- Freshness of the oil - fresh oil tastes significantly better than older oil since the oil degrades over time. The best place to get fresh olive oil is from regions that produce the oil because the freshness can be guaranteed!
- Varietal of olives - selecting olive oil is like selecting wine - the taste varies greatly depending on the type of olives, the extraction process, ripeness when harvested etc. You may have to taste a few different olive oils before you find the one you love.
- Heat application - the higher the heat applied to olive oil, the more the taste breaks down or changes. The reason for this is that the application of heat to the oil actually burns the unrefined particles in extra-virgin oil and the result is a bitter, burned tasting oil or dish. Olive oil has one of the lowest smoke points.
So, how about some ideas for using olive oil in recipes! Here are some of my favorites:
Salad with Pears & Candied Pecans
Blackberry Avocado Salad
Spaghettini with Oil & Garlic (Lidia Bastianich)
Marinated Tomato Salad (Rebuild the Blog)
Classic Hummus (Queen Creek Olive Mill)
Sea Salt and Olive Oil Brownie Cookies (Something Swanky)
What is your favorite Olive Oil recipe? Feel free to share it in the comments section below.