Thursday, February 25, 2010

Veggie Might: Olive Oil - Buying, Storing, and Using it, Demystified

Penned by the effervescent Leigh, Veggie Might is a weekly Thursday column about the wide world of Vegetarianism.

As with wine buying, olive oil shopping can be overwhelming if you don’t know what you’re looking for.

Until about a year ago, I would buy overpriced olive oil because I thought that’s what real cooks did. I would agonize at the market for hours, staring at the beautiful labels, reading about “cold pressed” and “first cold pressed” and “extra virgin” and “unrefined” and “estate bottled” oils until I didn’t know I still had eyes.

Then I started reading cookbooks. Turns out, even the best chefs buy mid-priced oil for everyday cooking, saving the expensive, boutique oils for special occasions. So what do they look for? How can you shop like Lidia and stay in budget? And once you’ve plunked down your hard-earned green for the green-gold, how do you keep it fresh? Read on, my darlings, read on.


The International Olive Oil Council has strict guidelines as to how olive oil is produced, packaged, and sold. Essentially, the lower the acidity and less refined the oil, the higher the quality.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil is obtained by pressing olives at room temperature to extract the oil without the use of heat, chemicals, or solvents. This process is called cold pressing.

Extra virgin olive oil is the most expensive and, generally, most flavorful of the olive oils, ranging from gold to deep green in color. Taste a few and find out what you like. Sometimes you’ll see unfiltered extra virgin olive oil, which Lidia Bastianich calls olio novello, with a cloudy, green, opaque appearance. She raves about its flavor and freshness. Extra virgin olive oils are best used raw, which allows their striking, individual flavors to shine.

How to Read the Label: first cold pressing, less than 1% oleic acid
Uses: dressing, dipping, some cooking

Virgin Olive Oil is also achieved by pressing but may involve the addition of heat or chemicals in the process. Virgin olive oil commonly has a milder flavor than extra virgin and is less expensive, which makes it great for cooking.

How to Read the Label: first cold pressing with 1% to 3.3% oleic acid
Uses: cooking

“Pure” Olive Oil/Olive Oil is chemically refined using solvents that evaporate away during the heating process. It is then blended with virgin olive oil to boost the color and flavor. Because of the processing, these oils are more economical and ideal for everyday cooking, like sautéing and stir-frying.

How to Read the Label: oleic acid content higher than 3.3%
Uses: cooking

Pomace Olive Oil is made from heating and extracting the remaining oil from the paste of crushed olives used to make extra virgin and virgin olive oil. It is then blended with virgin oil, resulting in bland, mostly flavorless oil. The Joy of Cooking warns it’s “of no culinary interest.”

Uses: avoid

“Light” Olive Oil is American marketing speak for chemically refined olive oil. “Light” olive oil has very little flavor and is only light in color, not in calorie or fat content. Again, The Joy of Cooking, says light olive oil is “a culinary waste of time and money.” It may or may not be cheaper than it’s “pure” or undesignated counterparts, but it is likely not worth any savings.

Uses: avoid


Cool Dark Place: Light, heat, and oxygen are the enemies of olive oil. Keep your oil in a cool, preferably dark place, and as your supply dwindles, decant your oil in smaller bottles to avoid exposure air. It will stay fresher longer.

Cooler Darker Place: The refrigerator is a great place to store oil of any kind. If your oil gets cloudy and congealed, just leave it out for a bit to warm up before use.

Oil Gone Bad
The worst place to store oil is the most convenient for cooking: on top of the stove. (I learned that the hard way.) You will have a bottle of stinky, rancid oil before you can say Bastianich five times fast.

Rancid oil smells like petroleum. If you’ve had a bottle of olive (or any kind of oil) for more than a year, give it a sniff. If it smells like you could pour it in your car or grease your bike chain with it, it’s time you parted ways.


Olive oil is low in saturated fat and high in monounsaturated fat, which makes it a healthy choice for people watching their cholesterol. It’s also versatile for cooking because of its high smoke point.

The smoke point of oil is the temperature at which the oil breaks down, causing the flavor and nutritional aspects of the oil to disintegrate—and turn to smoke.

Olive oil’s smoke point, between 405°F and 460°F, is above the recommend temperature for deep frying (350°F –375°F), making it is great for high-heat cooking, like sautéing and frying.

Choose Wisely
Olive oil has a distinctive, fruity flavor that carries through to the dishes it’s used in. That may sound obvious, but for a long time, I used olive oil in everything because I thought that’s what those real cooks did. Turns out there are times when I want a different flavor, or neutral oil, like canola, that doesn’t inform the flavor of my dish.

“I save my most beautiful oils for salads or special effects. For other uses, like sautéing, I use a modestly priced olive oil, of whatever official grade (extra virgin, virgin, or pure), so long as it’s fresh.”—Julia Child from Julia and Jacques: Cooking and Home

The master has spoken. Go (eat bread dipped in olive oil) in peace.

If you like this article, you may like

How to Read a French Fry, Russ Parsons, © 2001 Houghton Mifflin, New York
Lidia’s Italian Table, Lidia Bastianich, © 1998 William Morrow and Company, New York
The Joy of Cooking, Irma S. Rombauer, Marion Rombauer Becker, and Ethan Becker, © 1997 Simon and Schuster, Inc., The Joy of Cooking Trust, and The MRB Revocable Trust, New York
Julia and Jacque: Cooking at Home, Julia Child and Jacques Pepin, © 1999 Alfred A. Knopf, New York

(Photo credits: flickr members lynette henderson and Luigi FDV.)

Stumble Upon Toolbar


April said...

Thanks for pointing out the actual smoking point of olive oil. I know it's not recommended for high heat cooking, but there are some who say we shouldn't heat it at all. Unless I'm misunderstanding something, it seems that it should be fine for sauteing and roasting.

Jackie @ Munching Madness said...

What a great post! I learned so much!


wosnes said...

A couple of years ago I read that you should "only" buy olive oil that has the date the oil was pressed on the label. IF I did that, I wouldn't be buying any! I've not been able to find oil with the press date on it.

Leigh said...

Thanks for the comments.

April, I didn't come across any recommendations against heating olive oil in my research. On the contrary, most of what I read indicated that it can handle medium to high temps, but it's not the best for, say, deep frying.

Thanks Jackie! I blush.

wosnes, Wow! I never heard that. Seriously. I don't know if I've ever seen a date on oil.