What makes extra-virgin olive oil so much more special (and pricier) than regular olive oil? Here's what you need to know about the difference between the two, and why you need both in your kitchen. Plus, advice on selecting "good" olive oil from an expert.
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Choosing an olive oil can sometimes feel like choosing a bottle of wine. There are so many different varieties, origins and labels that it can make your head spin. The olive oil world is indeed similar to the wine industry with its certifying organizations and experts. We know how overwhelming all that information can be, so we're here to make things easy for you. We're going to break down the basics and explain the difference between regular and extra-virgin olive oils.

What Is Olive Oil?

Olive oil is a monounsaturated plant-based oil made by pressing or crushing fresh olives (olives are fruits that grow on trees). Depending on the type of olive and when it was harvested, and the way the oil is extracted and processed, olive oil can range in color from dark green to light yellow, and taste spicy to neutral. Olive oil can be used in many ways—in vinaigrettes, marinades, vegetable and meat cookery, and in desserts and baked goods. It's also commonly found in body products such as cosmetics and soaps.

What Are the Different Types of Olive Oil?

Olive oils are graded based on how they're produced, fatty acid level and flavor. There are several different regulating olive oil authorities around the world, and depending on where the oil is produced (Spain, Italy, Greece, Tunisia, Turkey, Morocco, Portugal and California are some of the top producers in the world by volume) and which organization's standards the producer follows, the parameters for each grade may differ slightly.

The most common types of olive oil used in the U.S., and that you likely see on the shelves while grocery shopping, are (according to The New Food Lover's Companion by Herbst and Herbst):

  • Extra-virgin olive oil is made from the first cold pressing and contains the least amount of fatty acids (1%). It's the most fruity tasting and most expensive of the oils.
  • Olive oil or pure olive oil is a combination of refined olive oil and extra-virgin. "Refined" means that the oil has undergone additional processing to neutralize any defects in taste, aroma or acidity.
  • Light and extra-light olive oils have the same monounsaturated fat and caloric content as olive oil. Here, "light" means the blend of refined and extra virgin oils leans heavily toward refined, so the color, aroma and flavor are lighter relative to the other olive oils.

For the purposes of this article, we'll simply break down the two major categories of extra-virgin olive oil and "regular" olive oil.

What Is Extra-Virgin Olive Oil?

Extra-virgin olive oil is the highest-quality olive oil. It is an unrefined oil, which means it is made by cold-pressing whole olives without any additional heat or chemicals.

In order to be certified as an extra-virgin olive oil, "the oil must be lab-tested for acidity and peroxide values as well as blind-tasted by a certified tasting panel for flavor defects," says Marisa Bloch Gaytan, Pasolivo's Level 2 olive oil sommelier and master blender. Processing and certifying extra-virgin olive oil is labor-intensive and time-consuming, which is why extra-virgin olive oil is significantly higher in price than regular olive oil.

The taste of your extra-virgin olive oil will depend on the type of olive. It can range from buttery and herbal to peppery and bitter.

What Is Regular Olive Oil?

Regular olive oil is a lower-grade olive oil that consists of all or mostly refined olive oil. Sometimes, "producers will run the olive paste through the mill multiple times to extract more oil," says Gaytan, which lowers the quality of the oil. Since regular olive oil doesn't need to follow strict manufacturing and taste profiles, it is much more affordable than extra-virgin olive oil.

Overall, regular olive oil has a more neutral flavor profile than extra-virgin. It is also usually lighter in color and aroma.

What Are Their Different Uses?

Although extra-virgin olive oil is superior in quality to regular olive oil, there's a place for both in your kitchen.

"What's important to know is that all grades of olive oil are safe and effective to cook with at any temperature, even high heat," according to the North American Olive Oil Association (NAOOA). "Aside from extra-virgin olive oil [having] been used in high-heat cooking for millennia throughout the Mediterranean region, more recent research, which was published in the journal ACTA Scientific Nutritional Health, found that olive oil is safe to cook with at high temperatures."

Extra-virgin olive oil is prized for its flavor, which can be lost in some dishes. You may use your more expensive oil for recipes that don't involve cooking such as dressings, dips or as a finishing oil.

"Regular olive oil is a good choice for a neutral flavor, but some bakers enjoy the flavor imparted by extra-virgin olive oil which enhances flavors like chocolate, lemon and spices. It's perfectly safe and effective to use," says the NAOOA.

Can They Be Substituted for Each Other?

Extra-virgin olive oil and regular olive oil can be substituted for each other; however, keep in mind their differing qualities. When substituting regular olive oil for extra-virgin olive oil, remember that regular olive oil has less intense flavor, which will affect the final taste of your dish. The opposite is true when substituting extra virgin for regular.

How to Select a Good Olive Oil

To choose a good extra-virgin olive oil, Gaytan says to look for one "that has gone through the appropriate steps to be certified as an extra-virgin olive oil. It should also be in a container that completely blocks the oil from the light." If possible, she also recommends buying directly from a producer you trust. Although taste is personal, Gaytan likes ones that "have a nice balance between the three positive attributes of olive oil: bitterness, fruitiness and pungency."

When choosing a regular olive oil, it's equally as important to look for one that is sold in a container that blocks out sunlight—this will help keep your oil fresh for longer. Since regular olive oil is more neutral in flavor, find a brand that aligns with your personal values when choosing.

Bottom Line

The difference between regular and extra-virgin olive oils comes down to how they are processed. Extra-virgin olive oil is unrefined and only uses cold-press methods during extraction. On the other hand, regular olive oil is refined. Experiment with your olive oils and see which uses you like best in different recipes like Apple-Balsamic Vinaigrette, Double-Tahini Hummus or Sicilian Marinated Olives. For baking or other recipes that apply heat, try Olive Oil-Braised Summer Squash or Olive Oil Chocolate Chunk Blondies