Olive oil is one of the most universal cooking oils. If you have ever shopped by it and been overwhelmed by the options, you may be wondering: what is olive oil? What is extra virgin olive oil? And what is the difference? In this guide we’ll walk you through olive oil versus extra virgin olive oil, and when to use both.
What Is Olive Oil?
So what is olive oil? Olive oil is a type of vegetable oil that is made from olives (the fruit of the tree Olea europaea L.). It is extracted by crushing or pressing the olives, which releases their natural oils.
You can use olive oil in cooking, baking, and as a dressing on salads or other foods. There are many different types of olive oils. Oils are graded based on how they were extracted and what kind of olives were used to make them. Even fifty years ago, olive oil was still fairly foreign to Americans. It became popular thanks to Italian immigrants who helped spread the Mediterranean cuisine.
Often what is simply labeled “olive oil” in stores is actually a grade referred to as refined olive oil. This is virgin olive oil that has been further processed, with some more pure virgin added for taste.
What Is Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO)?
Even experienced home chefs may be wondering, “What is extra virgin olive oil?” Luckily it’s not as complicated as it may sound!
Extra virgin olive oil is a grade of “virgin” olive oil. Virgin, in the context of olive oils, means that the oils have been extracted only by mechanical means. This may be by the traditional pressing method or with more modern centrifugation. Heat is never used on virgin olive oils. “Extra virgin” olive oil refers to virgin olive oil that meets the high standards of production and quality, as determined by the International Olive Council (IOC).
EVOO is the highest quality and most flavorful olive oil you can buy. It is achieved by pressing olives with a stone mill, much like how the ancient Mediterraneans would have done.
Olive Oil Versus Extra Virgin Olive Oil
The IOC assigns grades to olive oils based on the percent of fatty acid and nutrient content present. EVOO should contain no more than 0.8% free acidity, versus up to 2% in virgin olive oil.
What’s the Difference?
When it comes to understanding the differences between olive oil versus extra virgin olive oil, the process is key. EVOO is only made from the purest processes. However, the process for standard olive oils involves heating the fruit pulp to high temperatures. This helps separate the fruit from its juices.
Extra virgin olive oil must be free from defects like abnormal acidity, bitterness, or pungency. The refining process involved in cheaper olive oils strips the oil of its nutrients and vitamins, making it less healthy.
Extra virgin olive oil has a lower smoke point than regular olive oil, has the lowest acidity level of all olive oils, contains the most anti-oxidants of all olive oils, and has a lower percentage of oleic acid (monounsaturated fat).
If trying to identify olive oil versus extra olive oil in the wild, the color may provide a hint. EVOO tends to be darker and more green because it is a more pure extraction of the olive. Meanwhile, standard olive oil is usually a light pale yellow.
Compared to standard olive oil, extra virgin olive oil can be quite expensive because it’s so labor-intensive to produce. Hundreds of handpicked olives have to be pressed every hour. But when it comes to using high-quality ingredients, you truly do get what you pay for.
If you see something marked as “light” olive oil, don’t be fooled. These oils are not lower in calories or fat, but the “light” label refers to a lighter flavor and taste, usually because it has been refined.
When to Use Olive Oil
One common question is when to use olive oil versus extra virgin olive oil in cooking. When choosing the best oil for your dish, you should consider what type of cooking method you’ll be using and you’ll be relying on the flavor of the oil.
If you are thinking about frying or searing proteins, olive oil is a great option. Because of its higher smoke point, olive oil can be used for cooking at higher temperatures than extra virgin varieties (but not as high as butter or margarine). For any cooking higher than 350-415 degrees Farenheight, you’ll want to use standard olive oil.
When to Use Extra Olive Oil
Regular olive oils tend to be bland in taste. So, if you’re relying on the flavor of the oil itself, you’ll want to use EVOO. If you’re going to be using your olive oil for salads or as a dip, then it’s best to go with an EVOO.
The distinct flavor and aroma of extra virgin olive oil come from its delicate chemical structure. This structure breaks down when heated too high (burning). It’s best to avoid wasting your expensive EVOO on high-heat cooking.
While both have health benefits when they’re used in moderation (like lowering blood pressure), EVOO has more antioxidants than regular olive oil. It’s also got more monounsaturated fatty acids than its cheaper counterpart. This means those who are looking for better heart health should opt for extra virgin over regular.
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