Not All Olive Oils Are The Same
As you roll your way through your local grocery store, you will no doubt come across shelf after shelf of oils—a whole aisle of different oils from different nuts, seeds and fruits. We have more choices of oil than ever before, but still, the majority of the oil you’ll find in the aisle is without question olive oil.
Olive oil has been at the heart of Mediterranean cooking for thousands of years, thanks to the influence of ancient civilizations like the Romans and Greeks. Those roots are still prevalent today—it's quite possibly the most well-known and frequently used of cooking oils. So it's important to understand how certain olive oils differ and what they’re best used for.
The truth is, not all olive oils are created equal. We all know there is a difference between regular olive oil and extra virgin olive oil, but what does that difference mean for your cooking? What about the difference between two different bottles of extra virgin olive oil? Why do two bottles look the same, but one is double the price? What exactly is ‘light olive oil’? Whilst faced with a such a vast range of olive oils to select from, these are questions we’ve asked ourselves at one point or another. So we are going to answer all your questions and help you figure out which olive oil is right for you.
Olive Oil vs. Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Olive oil is made by pressing olives, but different stages of the pressing produce different types of oil. For example, extra virgin olive oil comes from the first mechanical pressing of the olives, meaning that the oil is not heated or chemically treated. Extra virgin means the olive oil is free of any defects, otherwise, the olive oil falls into the category of virgin or other olive oil, depending on the status of the defects.
Olives that are harvested earlier (when green, fresh and unripe) produce fruitier, more complex olive oil. When an olive is harvested earlier the oil is fruitier, more complex and contains more polyphenols. Polyphenols are important when describing the health benefits of olive oil – they are micronutrients with antioxidant properties that are thought to play a role in managing various illnesses, including diabetes, and cardiovascular diseases. Generally speaking, an early harvest guarantees an oil that contains the maximum level of polyphenols for good health.
On the other hand, if a mature olive that is completely ripe is picked, it will produce more oil but contain lower levels of polyphenols. Typically, farmers will leave olives on the tree until they’re nearly black so the oil yield will be higher. While oil made from those olives is still sweet, it lacks the bitter and fruity characteristics found in first-rate olive oils, and it’ll be lower in antioxidants and polyphenols.
Olive oil can be composed of refined olive oils, extra virgin or virgin olive oils and it is often light in color and taste. The refining process allows the oils to be used at high temperatures but also strips it of its healthy amino acids and nutrients.
Cooking With Extra Virgin Olive Oil
There’s a long-standing debate surrounding the suitability of olive oil when it comes to cooking. The argument against cooking with olive oil – particularly extra virgin olive oil – is that it has a low smoke point; this is the point at which the nutrients and phytochemicals in the oil start to burn, thus removing their flavor and health properties, and giving a bitter edge to the oil. Extra virgin olive oil has a lower smoke point than most other oils (somewhere in the range of 374–405°F). Generally speaking, the more flavorful your oil is, the lower the smoke point will be, as it's the flavor particles that burn once the oil is heated.
The idea that you can’t sauté or fry in extra virgin olive oil, though, is totally wrong. 325-350°F is an ideal temperature for frying most things. Most extra virgin olive oils will not degrade at this temperature, instead, they will impart a wonderful richness of flavor to your food. If you’re looking to sear something over very high heat, use a refined oil with a very high smoke point like sunflower or pomace oil—for everything else, we use extra virgin olive oil.
Choosing The Right Extra Virgin Olive Oil
So, how do you choose a good quality extra virgin olive oil that works for you? There is no replacement for tasting. The flavor spectrum of olive oils is huge and the only way to find the one variety you like is by trying a bunch of different styles. However, when it comes to picking a good oil, it pays to know about some of the jargon that surrounds it. Olive oil is a little like wine in that sense: there are some things you can look out for that will give you a better idea of exactly what you are buying.
Once you’ve found the olive oil that works for you, treat it like you would any flavored oil. You wouldn’t cook with sesame oil unless it had a purpose in the dish. Good olive oil has just as strong a flavor, so why treat it any differently? Extra virgin olive oil has a remarkably versatile taste: it goes beautifully with meat, fish, bread and pasta, but also with sweet flavors like vanilla, chocolate and fresh fruit.
Next time you’re cooking, and you feel like something is missing, try adding a splash of extra virgin olive oil – it might just take your dish to the next level.
Source: Great Italian Chefs