Breaking Down Olive Oil: Here's What You Need to Know

By Jennifer Buggica, Foodable Contributor

Whether you sauté, drizzle, or bake, chances are you’ve used olive oil in your kitchen, and use it often. When preparing to make a dish, you may grab what’s on sale at the market or use what you currently have in your cabinet, but there are differences in virgin olive oils and others. Knowing what you can expect in terms of flavor and cooking can make all the difference in the kitchen. 

Photo Credit: Thomas Ricker

Photo Credit: Thomas Ricker

What's the Difference?

Methods may differ by region, but typically, green olives are picked from trees and crushed under steel rollers or stone wheels. From this “pressing,” oil and water are extracted and, without any additional processing, is considered virgin, or pure.

Both extra-virgin and virgin olive oils, since they are made from the initial pressing phase of the process, are very similar, yet the acidity varies by just a slight percentage. Extra-virgin olive oil is considered to be so if the acidity is less than 1%, whereas virgin olive oil is acceptable at an acidity percentage slightly higher than 1%.

Virgin olive oils, being healthier and more premium, are the ideal olive oils to use uncooked, such as in salad dressings or drizzled on pizza and pasta. These are also the oils to use for mashed potatoes, brushed on vegetables, or mixed with herbs for a nice bread dip.

For those oils that are further refined after pressing, there are differences and uses as well. "Regular" olive oil — a blend of virgin olive oil with lower-quality, refined olive oil — is one you’ll find on traditional grocery store shelves most often and is best for cooking, which includes baking, sautéing and frying.

Olive Oils By Country

Olive oil is produced all around the world, so naturally, there will be different variations. Internationally, olive oil is mostly produced in Italy, Greece, Spain, and France, but stateside, there are olive oil plants in California, Oregon, as well as some other states.

As Spain, Italy, and Greece produce most of the world’s olive oil, these are the international oils you’ll find most often. Knowing the differences between the three will help you in choosing which to purchase: Spanish olive oil tends to have a fruity, nutty flavor; Italian olive oil has floral notes and a slight grassy flavor; and Greek olive oil is found to have the strongest flavor and aroma. 

What To Remember About Olive Oil

Whether you're using virgin oils or a blended national or international, there are tips you must follow in the selection and storage of these olive oils that’ll help maintain the integrity of what you have. 

  • Purchase olive oils that come in a dark bottle. This helps prevent oxidation and keeps the oil from quickly deteriorating. Also, make sure the olive oil bottle is tightly sealed.
  • Store olive oil in a cool, dark place. Most people leave the bottle of olive oil on the kitchen counter, but not properly stored, olive oil will lose its flavor and become less potent.