If you’re looking for just one oil to use in the kitchen, you couldn’t do better than olive oil; olive oil benefits your body, your brain, and your recipes, too. It’s definitely liquid gold.
Used for thousands of years, olive oil was considered to be partially responsible for the amazing longevity of the people who followed a Mediterranean diet, before any scientific studies could definitively prove that olive oil benefits health. More than any other grade, extra-virgin olive oil is made from the juice of fresh, ripe olives; it’s more likely to contain all the incredible nutrients that olive oil is famous for.
What culinary problem is this ingredient solving?
Olive oil is used to enhance the flavor of the food you cook, and it conducts higher temperatures allowing food to cook quickly no matter what method you use.
Different grades of olive oils differ in taste, use, and smoke point. The smoke point is really a temperature range (between 365-420°F), not an absolute number since many factors affect the chemical properties. The smoke point of oil varies with its quality. High quality extra-virgin olive oils (with low free fatty acids) have a higher smoke point, but they’re expensive to cook with.
Because of the wide range of olives used, olive oil can vary in flavor depending on where it comes from and how much refining it goes through before bottling. Grassy, tropical, fruity, green, are just some of the qualities olive oil can have.
Every oil is different—some are very mild, while others are intense and bold. When made from olives from single estates or specific growing regions, these high-quality artisan oils have more distinct flavors—and carry a higher price tag.
How it’s grown, harvested and processed
Spain is the leading producer of olive oil in the Mediterranean region, closely followed by Italy and Greece. In the United States, California produces the most olive oil. Olive trees thrive in arid regions with well-drained soil and lots of sun.
Olives, of which there are about 1,000 different varieties, are harvested from trees and washed. Then they’re pressed between stones or stainless steel blades and the paste is added to a centrifuge which separates the oil and water from the mash. Once the water is drawn out, olive oil is left behind. That’s just the beginning! Olive oil can go through many more refinements to get bottled and make its way to the shelf at the store.
Grades and standards
There’s a lot of debate and confusion about all the different varieties out there. To help clarify standards for the United States, in 2010, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) adopted chemical and sensory standards for olive oil grades similar to those established by the IOOC, the International Olive Oil Council. Here are the official guidelines:
Olive oil – obtained solely from the fruit of the olive tree (Olea europaea L.), to the exclusion of oils obtained using solvents or re-esterification processes and of any mixture with oils of other kinds.
Virgin olive oil – obtained from the fruit of the olive tree solely by mechanical or other physical means under conditions, including thermal conditions, that do not lead to alterations in the oil, and which have not undergone any treatment other than washing, decantation, centrifugation, and filtration. No additives of any kind are permitted.
Olive-pomace oil – obtained by treating olive pomace (the product remaining after the mechanical extraction of olive oil) with solvents or other physical treatments, to the exclusion of oils obtained by synthetic processes and mixture with oils of other kinds. Alpha-tocopherol is permitted to restore natural tocopherol lost in the refining process for refined olive pomace and olive-pomace oil.
Types and Uses
- Light olive oil – This is a marketing term that indicates highly refined olive oils with reduced calorie content.
- Pure olive oil, or simply olive oil – These are below extra-virgin and virgin standards and are heavily processed to remove flavors. Though the oil is still a source of monounsaturated fats, it has been stripped of healthful polyphenols.
- Cold-pressed – Cold-pressed means that no heat was used to extract the oil from the olives. Adding heat to the olives allows producers to extract more oil from the olives, but also destroys the delicate flavors and aromas valued in a good extra-virgin olive oil. It should be noted that cold-pressed means ‘at a temperature not to exceed 80.6°F.’
- Extra-virgin olive oil – With its low acid content, it’s an excellent choice in everything you cook such as salad dressings, vegetables, pasta, bean dishes, and grilled fish. A drizzle or two adds wonderful richness and body in soups and sauces, too.
- Pomace oil – Should be used with caution. It’s made of the last 5-8% of oil left in the mash after the higher grades of oil are removed in earlier pressings. Although the pomace oil that is extracted is still technically from olives, it’s removed using chemical solvents, and therefore should never be termed, directly or indirectly, as “olive oil.”
Transparency and concerns
Compared to other types of olive oils, however, extra-virgin olive oils are the most widely scrutinized. A helpful website to get up-to-the-minute studies, information, and facts about the olive oil you plan to buy is The Olive Oil Times, which is dedicated to rigorous testing and ingredient transparency in the olive oils sold around the world.
Furthermore, unregulated olive pomace oil sometimes contains harmful components known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) like benzopyrene, which research has shown to be highly carcinogenic and mutagenic.
Olive oil tastes best when it’s fresh. When you’re choosing, look for oils that have a clear “harvest date” within the last year on the label, or with at least a year to go before its “best by” date. If you can, ask the merchant for a sample of the oil, to see if you like the taste. Anything that smells stale, like cardboard or old walnuts, is likely rancid.
Also, consider the origin. Just because it says “made in Italy” on the label, doesn’t mean that the olives grew in Italy. The best olive oil tends to be grown, produced, and bottled from a single region.
Once you open the container, the oil begins to degrade quickly, losing its complex flavor profile. Never keep the oil on the kitchen counter, or next to the stove, as light and heat can accelerate this degradation.
Store in a dark green glass bottle to keep the light out, as sunlight can oxidize the chlorophyll in the oil and make it taste stale. Store your bottle tucked away in a pantry or cupboard. Use open bottles within a few months, but sealed bottles can last up to two years if stored in a cool, dark environment.
How to cook with it
There is some controversy, especially extra-virgin olive oil, but in fact, even extra-virgin olive oils can be heated in various cooking methods. With a smoke point of 410 degrees, extra-virgin olive oil is absolutely fine for most cooking applications, even deep frying. However, most cooks don’t usually use olive oil for frying because it is not always economical to use in such large quantities.
No matter what you choose, remember that olive oil, especially compared to more neutral oils, carries a lot of flavor to the food, so choose one that you think will pair well with what you’re cooking, no matter how you’re cooking it.
- Sautéing: Try a mild, buttery oil for a quick vegetable sauté.
- Poaching: Use a mild fairly inexpensive oil for poaching delicate fish.
- Frying: Use an economical oil that’s filtered for deep-frying, because you’ll need a fair amount of it.
- Searing: A medium-bodied, fruity oil, as long as it’s not overheated and burned, is an excellent way to add yet another layer to a steak or chicken breast.
- Baking: A buttery olive oil is the perfect butter substitute in cakes and breads.
- Finishing: Use your fruitiest most robust oils for drizzling on the surface of soups, over roasted vegetables, or as the main ingredient in a homemade aioli or salad dressing.
Advantages vs disadvantages
Olive oil is a crucial part of the Mediterranean diet and is one of the most nutritious of all the vegetable oils out there. It’s easy to find, as long as you become adept at reading labels and doing some research on producers, and tastes excellent on almost anything.
But it can be confusing to find reputable brands that are what they say they are, and when you do, olive oil can cost more than a lot of other types of oil out there. Olive oil doesn’t have the best shelf life, either, so this can either be a good thing (you get to use a lot of it!) or a bad thing (hurry up and use that oil)!
Olive oil is an excellent and welcome addition to today’s diets. It’s used with Paleo, Whole30, and a low carb diet; they welcome healthy fats compared to the restricted fat diets popular a generation ago.
Nutritional profile per serving
One tablespoon of olive oil has 119 calories, 10g monounsaturated fat, 1.4g polyunsaturated fat, and 1.9g saturated fat.
Health benefits of olive oil
The health benefits have been the subject of numerous studies about heart disease, metabolism, depression, and cancer prevention. One study published found that the olive-derived compound oleuropein helps the body secrete more insulin, a central signaling molecule in the body that controls metabolism.
Olive oil supports one of the main pillars of the Mediterranean Diet Pyramid: to eat more healthy fats and fewer saturated fats. Because olive oil is rich in monounsaturated fatty acids, (healthy fats), and also high in antioxidants, it can be a powerful anti-inflammatory and protect cells against oxidization and free radicals.
It’s also been shown to help lower LDL cholesterol and reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and certain types of cancer, including breast cancer.
The healthful fats in olive oil can act as a sustained source of energy; people who consumed olive oil can feel full longer, which can lead to weight loss. And as if that isn’t enough, adding olive oil to your diet can prevent cognitive decline; contribute to brain health, mood stability and proper hormone development.