Cooking with Olive Oil
The fertile land of the Mediterranean makes the perfect home for the picky olive tree to grow, for more than 6,000 years. While the specific origin of olive oil is unknown, it is suspected this rich liquid was first created in present-day Syria or sub-Saharan Africa.
Producers worldwide make many types of olive oil, each with their own specifications. Though unique in some ways, they all start with roughly the same process: mashing the olives and removing the remaining solids from the resulting oil.
Some common olive oil categories are light olive oil, regular olive oil, virgin olive oil, and extra virgin olive oil, which increase in flavor and quality from light to extra virgin.
Light Olive Oil
It’s a common misconception that light olive oil is somehow healthier or lower in fat and calories than other varieties of olive oil, likely because of the “light” distinction in its title. Light olive oil is actually just extra refined and thus has a paler, light color. This refining makes it a great option for baking as it won’t overpower your dish if you want other flavors to shine through.
Light olive oil also has a high smoke point compared to other types of olive oil at 470 degrees Fahrenheit, so we recommend you choose it for high-heat cooking, like sauteing and frying. Light olive oil is often also cheaper than the others.
Regular Olive Oil
Regular olive oil is a little less refined than light olive oil, making it slightly more flavorful, though not as flavorful as the coveted extra virgin. Regular olive oil has a more mild taste due to the heat used in production to remove impurities. To make up for this, a percentage of extra virgin olive oil is often added in to boost the flavor lost during the refining process. The high heat used in the refining process also removes some of the antioxidants from olive oil.
The more refined an oil is, the fewer antioxidants there are present
Regular olive oil can withstand higher heat and still impart a little of that classic olive oil taste but won’t take over the flavor profile of whatever dish you’re cooking. This is a great option for seafood, searing meat, or infusing with herbs and garlic for a finishing oil, as it will still let those flavors shine.
Virgin Olive Oil
To get the virgin olive oil distinction, producers cannot use any heat or chemicals to make it. Therefore, virgin olive oil has to be completely unrefined, only separated and filtered from the solid olive remains. The purity standards are not quite as high as those of extra virgin olive oil though, and more defects in the oil are possible, including fustiness, or slight fermentation in the olives before they are milled, as olives are left to sit for too long before processing.
As it is unheated, virgin olive oil does have more flavor and richness than light or regular olive oil. This product is often harder to find in grocery stores, but if you can get your hands on it, try using it in dishes or preparations that will leave any defects unnoticed, like roasting vegetables or baking.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Extra virgin is the gold standard when it comes to olive oil: It has a high amount of polyphenols, is incredibly flavorful, has high standards of production, and does not go through any refining processes. The oil earns its distinction by having a strong scent, robust flavor, unique mouthfeel, and none of the common defects permitted in other olive oil varieties.
This is a good choice for salad dressings and marinades, as a dipping oil, or drizzled on top of finished foods. The flavor of the oil is best appreciated before any heating, so we recommend using it uncooked. The smoke point is also lower than other olive oils at 350 degrees.
Other olive oils are also generally cheaper than extra virgin, so if you’re going to shell out for this oil, make sure to get the most out of it.