When you go to a grocery store, you’ll see a lot of different kinds of olive oil – different colors, from almost clear to yellow to deep green, different descriptors on the label, and vastly different price ranges.
Which one goes with which application? How does the taste compare? Is the expensive stuff worth the money? In this article, we’re going to go through it all.
Virgin, extra virgin, light, blended… what does it all mean? Here, we will go through the different types of olive oil and the pros and cons of each.
Virgin Olive Oil
Virgin olive oil is produced only by physical means, rather than by chemical treatment. The best stuff comes from only ripe olives (as green and overripe olives produce bitter and rancid oil, respectively) ground into a paste using millstones or steel drums. By definition, a virgin olive oil has not undergone any processing other than washing, decanting, centrifuging, and filtering (although none of these are required for virgin oil, nothing else is permitted). Some heat can be applied and, as long as it doesn’t alter the composition of the oil, the process can still be dubbed virgin pressing.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Extra virgin olive oil is extracted from the first press. As with virgin olive oil, processing involves only washing, decanting, centrifuging, and filtering. Low heat can be applied as long as it does not alter the quality of the olive oil.
Extra virgin olive oil is widely regarded as the pinnacle of olive oils. According to the International Olive Oil Council, extra virgin olive oil must contain at most 0.8% acidity, with a “superior taste.” Extra virgin can also be unfiltered (which deepens the flavor and reduces shelf life) or cold-pressed (wherein the pressing is slow and gradual, without generating much frictional heat, and which results in better flavors). Most extra virgin also contains the most polyphenols, which are some of my favorite antioxidants.
Extra virgin olive oil will generally be more expensive than virgin olive oil of similar quality.
Light olive oil doesn’t have fewer calories than the other varieties of olive oil. It just lacks flavor and color. It may also contain less of the beneficial polyphenol compounds that make olive oil so appealing.
Refined Olive Oil
Refined olive oil takes poor quality (either due to acid content or other defects) virgin oil and processes it until it is edible. Refining is usually done with charcoal filters or chemical processes. Refined olive oil is more shelf-stable, but it’s also essentially flavorless.
Olive Pomace Oil
Olive Pomace oil is extracted from the olive solids (pomace) leftover from the pressing, usually using chemical solvents. This isn’t culinary olive oil, and it’s definitely not meant to be eaten. Most olive oil-based soaps you see are made with olive pomace oil.
Blended Olive Oil
Blended olive oils are, in my opinion, to be generally avoided. While it can be a blend of different olive oil varieties, most often you’ll find it blended with cheaper industrial seed oils like canola or some other vegetable oil. You’ll get increased shelf life and polyunsaturated fat content along with less monounsaturated fat. No thanks.
What to Look For When You Buy Olive Oil – A Few Things to Keep in Mind
Just because something is labeled “extra virgin,” though, doesn’t mean it’s necessarily good. In fact, rather than buying a mid-priced or inexpensive bottle of Italian or Greek extra virgin olive oil, you might look for a domestic brand. Those extra virgins are fragile oils, and the journey from the Mediterranean can result in a bland bottle. I’ve also read that a lot of the extra virgin that makes it over here in mass quantities isn’t worth it (and that’s been my experience, sadly).
When choosing an oil, treat it a bit like wine and engage your senses. Smell it – it should smell like olives, very clean and almost like grass and apples. Don’t rely too much on sight – the color of an oil is easily manipulated. Instead, go with the one that really matters: taste. Take a half teaspoon or so into your mouth and swirl it around (again, like wine). First and foremost, it should taste like olives, but there are other flavors in the best oils. Grassiness, apples, even fennel are pretty common in really great olive oil. If it’s metallic-tasting or has a faint paint thinner scent, it’s probably rancid. If it’s light, delicious, and barely coats your mouth (without feeling greasy), it’s probably great stuff. And then my favorite part, the finish. The best oils from the first harvest with the highest antioxidant content will leave a spicy finish on your throat, like mild peppers.
Just experiment. Keep trying them until you find one you like. The different varietals are all unique, so your journey might be a long one. Of course, I have a favorite. I kept these qualities in mind when sourcing and developing it.
The thing with olive oil is that you need to use it the right way. The best extra virgin, unfiltered, cold-pressed olive oil should never be used to sauté something because heat can mar the delicate flavor. Instead, use high quality stuff as a finisher. Cook with butter then top the dish off with your prized extra virgin oil. That way, the taste and nutritional benefits are retained without wasting any of your precious nectar on a cast iron skillet.
Olive Oil Storage
Store your oil in a cool, dark place. Heat and light are now your biggest enemies (be sure to buy an oil in a dark bottle). Extra virgin is the least stable, so keep it at a good temperature (somewhere between 57 and 65 degrees, like a wine cellar). You can refrigerate other olive oils if your kitchen is too hot, but refrigerating extra virgin olive oil can disrupt the delicate flavors. If you get extra virgin that’s tasty enough, of course, you won’t have to worry about long-term storage – you’ll be guzzling it straight out of the bottle.
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.