Everything you need to know to choose the healthiest, tastiest oil and find delicious recipes using olive oil.
There are lots of good reasons to stock your pantry with olive oil. Long the most commonly used oil in the Mediterranean (as much as 25 to 40 percent of calories consumed in this region come from olive oil), extra-virgin olive oil’s healthful properties come from rich levels of monounsaturated fat, which promote “good” cholesterol, as well as abundant polyphenols, powerful antioxidants that may help prevent cardiovascular disease and lower blood pressure.
But when confronted with dozens of olive oils at the grocery store, labeled with terms like “cold-pressed” and “unfiltered” on their labels—and priced from $5 to $50, what’s a quality-minded, health-conscious grocery shopper to do?
Extra-virgin and virgin olive oils are processed by crushing olives into a mash, which is pressed to extract the oil (this is called the first press) without the use of heat (called cold pressing). Extra-virgin oils are of higher quality, as the olives used to make them are processed within 24 hours of picking—the longer olives go between picking and processing, the higher their free fatty acid content (extra-virgin olive oil can have up to 0.8 percent, virgin oils 2 percent). Extra-virgin oils also have more polyphenols than virgin oils.
Oils can be filtered—or not. Unfiltered oils have tiny particles of olive flesh in them, which reduces shelf life, and may appear cloudy if those particles haven’t settled at the bottom of the bottle.
Pure olive oil or simply olive oil are below extra-virgin and virgin standards and are heavily processed to remove off flavors and aromas. Though the oil still is a source of monounsaturated fat, its been stripped of healthful polyphenols.
“Light,” “lite” and “extra-light” are purely marketing terms used on highly refined oils that refer to mild flavor and/or color, not reduced calorie content.
“Product of Italy” means the oil was processed in Italy, not necessarily that the olives were grown there.
You can find oils that use solely Italian olives—or olives from Greece or California. Often made from olives from single estates or particular growing regions, these high-quality artisan oils have more distinct flavors—and are more expensive. When seeking out these oils, look for seals and designations as helpful indications of quality. Denominazione d’Origine Protetta (DOP) in Italy, Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC) in France and Denomination of Origin (DOP) throughout the European Union (EU) identify products produced, processed and prepared in regions known for expertise in that particular product. The California Olive Oil Council (COOC) and International Olive Council (IOC) certify and give their mark to quality extra-virgin olives oils, from California and the EU respectively, based on taste and quality.
Olive Oil Shopping Tips
Light exposure causes the oil to become rancid and lose its healthful properties—buy extra-virgin olive oil in dark glass bottles and metal cans and store it in a cool, dark place.
Bottling and/or expiration dates provide guidance on how long the oil will keep.
If you don’t use extra-virgin olive oil regularly, buy small bottles—polyphenols and flavor can diminish as the oil is exposed to air.
The color of the oil doesn’t indicate its quality—rather the variety and ripeness of olives used to make it.
What We Like at EatingWell
In the EatingWell Test Kitchen, we like to use extra-virgin olive oil for both its healthful properties (we often use it to replace butter or other fats) and its flavor. Consider keeping two types on hand: a less expensive variety for cooking and an artisanal oil for dipping. We recently held a blind tasting of 10 different inexpensive oils. Four of the six tasters preferred Spectrum Organic Extra-Virgin Olive Oil ($11/12.7 oz.) for its fruity olive flavor and well-balanced finish. We also tried a variety of artisanal oils. Comments on the flavors and aromas of the artisanal oils ran the gamut from “grassy, green and bitter” to “buttery with a green-apple finish.” There were two that we liked best. L’Estornell Organic Spanish Extra Virgin Olive Oil ($33/25.3 oz.) is a well-balanced oil made from Arbequina olives, the variety used to make most oils from California and Northeast Spain. A lovely single-estate oil from Tuscany, Altomena Extra-Virgin Olive Oil ($18/8.45 oz.) is grassy and peppery with loads of olive flavor.
The Smoke Point Controversy
You might have heard that you can’t cook with extra-virgin olive oil because it breaks down when heated, creating harmful substances and destroying its beneficial properties. But all oils break down when they are heated to their smoke point or reheated repeatedly. However, an oil’s smoke point is really a temperature range (olive oil’s is between 365-420°F), not an absolute number because many factors affect the chemical properties of oil. You can safely and healthfully cook with any oil by not heating it until it’s smoking—to get your oil hot enough to cook with, just heat it until it shimmers.