See also extra virgin olive oil.
Olive oil is high on the list of essential cooking aids with its heart-healthy, cholesterol-lowering monounsaturated fats. Only green olives are harvested for the production of oil. The greatest production is in Spain (50%) followed by Italy, Greece, France, Turkey, the U.S. (mainly California), and Tunisia.
Olive oils are graded according to the extraction method, which influences the flavor and clarity. The highest quality oils will undergo a single pressing while those that are of lesser quality will become more “refined” through heat or chemical extraction plus bleaching and other treatment. Calories and fats are the same regardless of which oil is selected.
The oil is then classified as “virgin” (unrefined), “refined” (chemicals are used), or “pomace” (rarely sold as a consumable). Cold pressing produces the finest quality oils while heat-presseding induces a reaction that alters the original flavoring. Further refinement will also affect the color.
- Extra-Virgin – Resulting from the first, cold pressing. The highest grade with an acidity level of less than 1%. May also be called “premium.” Heating will greatly reduce the intensity and it is best used at the table.
- Virgin – The oil is extracted from riper olives and has an acidity level of less than 2%. Label may also state “fine” or “semi-fine.” Can be used for salads, dipping, and baking, but should not be exposed to high temperatures.
- Light or Extra Light – The most refined and least aromatic. Sometimes labeled “light” or “extra light.” These may be blends of low-grade olives plus a hint of virgin oils for acceptable flavor. Best used in baking, frying, and sautéing as this type has a higher smoke point (up to 410ºF./210ºC. This grade is sometimes infused with garlic, chili, basil, and rosemary to improve flavor.
Oils are much like wines when comparing flavor, color, and consistency. They vary according to the type of olive, country of origin, and specific growing locality.