Olive oil is one of the world’s most ancient foods and it’s one of the most common cooking ingredients. In fact, there’s probably a bottle sitting in your pantry right now. Right?!
In addition to tasting delicious, olive oil is packed with heart-healthy monounsaturated fats. But this kitchen staple is often shrouded in confusion—what’s the difference between virgin and extra-virgin? Is it OK to cook with the good stuff? And how can you even tell what the good stuff is?
“Olive oil is so versatile because there are many flavors, notes, and colors,” says New York chef and food stylist Jennifer Ophir. “In that respect, it’s like wine.” And like wine, it can be intimidating.
Eating it can save your life
Olive oil consumption has been found to be effective against cancer, diabetes, heart disease — even osteoporosis and Alzheimer’s.
There’s virgin, and there’s refined
Extra virgin and virgin olive oil, like fresh fruit juice, are simply made by crushing olives. Extra virgin tastes better than virgin, hits higher scores in terms of its chemical composition and it has more nutrients.
All other grades, including “olive oil,” “pure” and “light” olive oil are refined, which means they are made in an industrial process using heat and chemicals — the same process used to make seed oils like canola and sunflower. Refined olive oil, a monounsaturated fat, is still a much healthier choice than seed oils. Think of olive oil as olive juice.
“Olive oil is a fruit juice,” explains Nicholas Coleman, chief oleologist (fancy term for olive oil expert) at Eataly NY and founder of Grove and Vine. And when fresh, that juice can be a bit intense. Similar to dark chocolate and craft beers, good, fresh olive oil has notes of bitterness.
“Fresh oils can have a pungent, lingering black pepper finish that slowly trails off in the back of the throat,” says Coleman. That amazing and sometimes intense peppery sensation is considered a marker of real-deal, high-quality olive oil. It occurs because of oleocanthal, a compound that has both anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Even if it says ‘extra virgin’ it might not be
Producing extra virgin olive oil, and maintaining its quality is not an easy task and a lot can go wrong along the way. Most ‘extra virgin’ olive oils at your local store will no longer deserve that status by the time they reach your meal, or they never did.
Extra-virgin olive oil is the highest quality—it contains no more than 1 percent oleic acid (virgin olive oil contains up to 2 percent). The acidity comes from free fatty acids, and can be detected only in a laboratory. An expert panel of olive oil-tasters (yes, this is a job) must also discern that olive oil is up to snuff. Keep in mind, virginity is about the process of extracting the oil, and unrelated to the type of olives.
“Extra-virgin oil tastes good, smells good, looks good, is good for you, and brings out wonderful flavors you didn’t know existed in all of your favorite foods,” Jenkins says. You can end up shelling out significant dough for a stunning bottle, but for food-lovers, it’s a good buy.
Being an expert is easier than you think
More and more cooking schools and online courses are offering lessons on tasting olive oil, but there are also legions of self-taught experts who simply took the time to understand what to look for — and it’s mostly about using your sense of smell.
A good place to start is that extra virgin olive oil should have the aroma of olives. It can have the fragrance of ripe olives, or less ripe (green) olives. The slightest hint of spoiled fruit, mustiness, vinegar or metallic is a big red flag indicating that something is wrong and you need to move on.
Bitterness is good
A healthy olive picked fresh off the tree is far too bitter to eat (table olives are soaked in brine before they grace our martinis). But that bitterness is all those nutrients that are so good for you.
So, just like you grew to love bitter dark chocolate and beer, learn to recognize bitterness as a sign of a fresh, healthy extra virgin olive oil. Get used to it. Or, better yet, cherish it.
Fresher is better, always.
“Olive oil is adversely affected by several factors including time passed since its pressing, heat, light, and air,” says Steven Jenkins, olive oil expert and author of ** The Food Life. Luckily the shelf life is a little bit longer than that of the kale, apple, and parsley blend you love—olive oil is at its best in its first two years. An older bottle probably won’t hurt you, but it slowly loses its beautiful flavors and health benefits with every passing day. To help extend the life of your olive oil, but sure to store the bottle in a dark, cool place away from direct sunlight.
It’s the only oil you need in your kitchen
Almost every time you would reach for butter or unhealthy seed oils, you can use olive oil instead. Just use the same amount as the recipe calls for other cooking oils and use ¾ tablespoon of olive oil for each tablespoon of butter.
Olive oil is the perfect choice for all the cooking you do.