Everything you need to know about olive oil. What are the different types of olive oil? What's the best EVOO to buy? Is it good for you? Can you cook with it? How do you store it? This easy guide will answer all your questions and more!
EVOO, the start of everything delicious!
Extra virgin olive oil—EVOO, for short—is the liquid gold of the Mediterranean.
It is an essential ingredient that is central to the identity of Mediterranean cooking and the Mediterranean diet, and, as I like to say, the start of everything delicious! Of the many oils on the market, olive oil is known for its nutrition benefits and versatility (I use it in everything from dressings to roasted cabbage and my favorite banana bread).
Navigating the murky waters of buying quality olive oil can be a bit complicated. As a Mediterranean home chef whose favorite and most-used ingredient is EVOO, I get a lot of questions about it. What should I look for? What’s a good olive oil? Can I cook with it? And on and on.
I put together this simple guide to help answer the most frequently asked questions and share what I know to the best of my ability.
As always, please remember the information shared here on The Mediterranean Dish is intended for your general knowledge. It is not intended as a medical diagnosis or advice. Please be sure to consult your healthcare provider before trying a new diet or a way of eating. Never disregard professional advice or delay seeking treatment based on what you read.
Here we go…
Table of contents
- EVOO, the start of everything delicious!
- Types of olive oil
- Some benefits of extra virgin olive oil
- How do I know which extra virgin olive oil to buy?
- Can I cook with olive oil?
- Does olive oil go bad?
- How to store olive oil
- My favorite olive oils
- Related articles you may like
Very simply put, olive oil is the oil that is naturally extracted from olives, the fruit of olive trees.
It is produced by mashing ripe (and sometimes young nearly ripened) olives to extract their juice. When this process happens with minimal or no additional heat or chemicals, you get cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil, the good stuff as I like to say.
Mashing and grinding the olives results in a paste, which then undergoes malaxation, where the paste is slowly churned to break off emulsions formed during the crushing process and to help increase extraction yields (if you’re really into it and want to learn more, read this Science Direct article).
Lastly, the paste is run through a centrifuge to separate the oil from the water and solids. The result is unfiltered extra virgin olive oil, which is then filtered or racked to remove any remaining sediment, then tested to ensure it meets several rigorous standards, and, lastly, bottled.
Types of olive oil
There are four main types of olive oil: extra virgin olive oil, virgin olive oil, pure olive oil, and light olive oil. Here is a bit about each:
- Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) – This is my preferred type of olive oil, as it is the least- processed, most rich-tasting olive oil. Quality cold-pressed EVOO should have an acidity level of 0.8% or less, the lower the acidity levels, the higher the quality (our Greek Early Harvest EVOO, for example, has an acidity level of 0.21%). Good EVOO is also rich in polyphenols, which have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Generally speaking, extra virgin olive oil with polyphenol levels above 220 is considered a high-polyphenol EVOO (for example, our Spanish Hojiblanca EVOO has a polyphenol count of 392, while our Italian Nocellara EVOO has a 412 polyphenol count!)
- Virgin olive oil – Unlikely to be found at your local grocery store, this type of olive oil is quite similar to extra virgin olive oil. However, virgin olive oil is slightly lower in quality, and has an acidity around 1.5%.
- Pure olive oil (or “olive oil”) – To put it simply, when the term “pure” is used, it is meant to tell you that the bottle contains only olive oil, however, it can be a blend of virgin oils (about 15% to 20%) and the remaining 75% or so would likely be refined olive oils. These are usually lighter-tasting oils.
- Light olive oil – Contrary to what its name suggests, light olive oil does not have fewer calories and it is not a low-fat form of olive oil. The term “light” here refers to the flavor rather than the caloric content (all olive oil will contain about 14 grams of fat per tablespoon). Like pure olive oil, light olive oil is a blend of oils, and it has a higher smoke point than extra virgin olive oil.
Some benefits of extra virgin olive oil
Extra virgin olive oil has long been touted as one of the healthiest oils on Earth. Here are some benefits you may have read about it:
- Rich in healthy fats – EVOO is predominantly made up of a monounsaturated fat called oleic acid, an anti-inflammatory omega-9 fatty acid that may also improve insulin sensitivity.
- Excellent source of antioxidants – We talked about polyphenols, which are EVOO compounds that are rich in antioxidants (which are anti-inflammatory and protect against free radical damage).
- Reduces the risk of stroke and protects against heart disease – EVOO is known to lower LDL (“bad” cholesterol) and increase HDL (“good” cholesterol). High cholesterol increases your risk for both stroke and heart disease.
- Reduces the risk of type 2 diabetes – Studies have shown that extra virgin olive oil has positive effects on blood sugar and insulin levels.
- Can aid in weight control – It sounds a bit counterintuitive since a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil contains 14 grams of fat. However, because of its good fat content, EVOO is satisfying and helps control hunger. Some studies found that even the smell of olive oil increases serotonin, the "happy chemical" that can improve your mood and also affects the appetite making you feel a bit more satisfied!
- Can eliminate harmful bacteria – Studies have shown that extra virgin olive oil is able to fight off eight strains of the harmful bacterium Helicobacter pylori, which lives in the stomach and can cause stomach issues such as ulcers.
How do I know which extra virgin olive oil to buy?
So, what should you look for when you are searching for quality extra virgin olive oil? Here are a few things:
- Name: Ensure that the label clearly states that the product is cold-pressed “extra virgin olive oil.” Light olive oil, pure olive oil, refined olive oil, etc. are further processed and are typically blends of different olive oils.
- Acidity level: True EVOO must have an acidity of less than 0.8%. But the highest quality extra virgin olive oils will have an acidity of 0.3% or less. Product acidity is not usually printed on labels, but should be easily located on a company’s website. For example, our Private Reserve Green EVOO has an acidity level of 0.25%, and our Early Harvest Greek EVOO has an acidity of 0.21%).
- Origin and type of olive used: You should be able to tell the origin and the exact olives used in making the oil. Think of how different grapes produce different tasting wines; it’s the same with olives and olive oils. The taste will differ depending on the olives used. For example, our Italian Nocellara EVOO comes from, you guessed it, 100% Nocellara del Belice olives, which are cultivated in the ancient city of Agrigento, Sicily. It is a moderately intense EVOO with hints of freshly picked tomatoes. Our Greek Early Harvest Extra Virgin Olive Oil comes from Koroneiki olives cultivated on the Kotsovolos Family Estate in Christianoupolis, Greece. It is bold and pungent with a peppery finish.
When the specific origin and type of olive is not listed, the olive oil is likely produced from many different olives mass-produced from different groves and different parts of the world, versus olives of a “single region” or “single estate.”
This doesn’t mean that all EVOO blends are bad, but it can mean less control over the quality of the olives used, and you’ll likely have a lesser quality oil.
- Harvest date: Although an unopened bottle of EVOO has a shelf life of nearly 2 years, it’s best to buy from a place with good turn over so that you have access to the freshest oils from the latest harvest. If you head to our online shop and tap on any of the olive oils, you’ll see the harvest date and bottling date listed at the top for each bottle.
- Packaging: Buy olive oils that are packaged in dark glass bottles or tin cans. This is important because olive oil can deteriorate when exposed to light.
Can I cook with olive oil?
The short answer is yes, you can cook with olive oil. You may have heard the myth that you should not cook with olive oil, and that is simply a rumor that studies have proven wrong.
In a study by the University of Barcelona published in the journal Antioxidants, researchers confirmed that olive oil retains large amounts of its healthy compounds when used for cooking. It was found that while there is a decrease in the amount of polyphenols in the oil when it is exposed to heat, the amounts of both antioxidants and polyphenols remained quite high.
I know this is the biggest question people ask, so I wrote a whole post about cooking with olive oil.
What is the smoke point of extra virgin olive oil?
The smoke point of an oil refers to the temperature at which it begins to smoke and degrade. At this point, harmful compounds form in the oil. When it reaches its smoke point, an oil also loses much of its nutrients and antioxidant properties.
Extra virgin olive oil has a smoke point of between 374 and 405 degrees F (190 to 207 degrees C). While this is a bit lower than other oils, it is still safe to cook and even bake with quality EVOO. Good quality EVOO will also have a higher smoke point than its lower-quality counterparts.
But smoke point is not actually the most important factor when it comes to deciding on a cooking oil, according to the North American Olive Oil Association. Instead, focus on the oxidative stability of an oil. Oxidative stability refers to how resistant the oil fats are to reacting when exposed to oxygen, heat, and light. Olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fats, which are relatively stable at high heat and less likely to undergo oxidization. The type of fats we should be concerned about at high temperatures are polyunsaturated fats, which produce more harmful compounds when heated -- even in oils with much higher smoke points than EVOO.
Can you use olive oil instead of vegetable oil?
You can use extra virgin olive oil instead of vegetable oil in most cases. For cooking and baking, EVOO is a healthier option than vegetable oil.
The only instance where I would say vegetable oil would be a better option is for deep frying, where an oil with a more neutral flavor might be a better option.
Does olive oil go bad?
Contrary to popular belief, oils can go bad! And extra virgin olive oil is no exception. A properly stored unopened bottle of quality extra virgin olive oil will have a shelf life of about 18 months to 2 years, but once you open it, you should consume it within 3 months.
There are two ways to easily tell whether your EVOO is rancid: smell and taste. Fresh extra virgin olive oil will smell bright and robust. Rancid oil can smell waxy – sort of like crayons. It might also smell quite stale. If you want to taste your olive oil to check for freshness, try a small amount. If it is sour, the oil is likely rancid. I don’t recommend cooking with rancid oil.
It’s therefore a good idea to keep an eye on your oil’s harvest date, as well as note when you opened the bottle. I go through extra virgin olive oil very quickly, so using it while it is still fresh has never been an issue for me. But I have friends (who don’t cook as frequently) who write the date they opened their EVOO on the label using a marker.
Once opened, it should be used in about two months. So, enjoy your olive oil! Don’t try to save it for a special meal or occasion. The sooner you use it, the better it will taste!
How to store olive oil
To maintain freshness and flavor, it is important to store your olive oil correctly and, as mentioned earlier, consume it within 3 months.
While convenient, keeping your olive oil bottle by the stove is not a good idea. Exposure to heat and sunlight can reduce the quality of your EVOO and even damage it.
It is best to store your tightly closed olive oil bottles in a cool, dark space like an unheated pantry.
My favorite olive oils
I’ve been using extra virgin olive oil for years, and you can find my favorites over at our online shop. We currently carry delicious, rich, flavorful olive oils from Greece, Spain, and Italy. You can find them all at our online shop.
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Please Note: The information shared here on The Mediterranean Dish is intended for your general knowledge. It is not intended as a medical diagnosis or advice. Please be sure to consult your healthcare provider before trying a new diet or a way of eating. Never disregard professional advice or delay seeking treatment based on what you read.