Given my state of origin (Mississippi), it’s not surprising that my favorite cooking fats are bacon grease and butter. They make food taste like home, but they aren’t the fats I reach for if I’m oil-poaching a salmon filet, whipping up a quick vinaigrette, or making a vegan marinara (which, incidentally, is even better than the ones I make with butter). In those instances, I reach for olive oil.
Buying olive oil is, however, a little more confusing than buying butter (a subject I understand completely). Much like egg cartons, bottles of olive oil come with lots of words all over the packaging, some of which are more important than others. To get some clarity, I asked olive oil purveyor and self-described “recovering food writer,” Jim Dixon, to help me understand what all these terms mean, and how to spot a true virgin in grocery store aisle full of pretenders.
How is olive oil made?
Before we get into the words on the bottle, let’s talk about the olive oil extraction process. Modern olive oil is extracted by decanter centrifugation. The olives are crushed into a fine paste, the slowly churned and heated (usually to around 27℃) for 30 minutes to an hour, to help gather the smaller oil droplets. The paste is then pumped into a large decanter that separates the oil from water and pomace (olive pulp) by way of centrifugal force. The liquids are then run through faster vertical centrifuges, which draw any residual water out of the oil, and vice versa.
How to spot a fake virgin olive oil
“The differences between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ start in the orchard,” Jim explained over email. “Modern extra virgin olive oils are made from olives picked before they are fully ripe, a stage when the levels of the phenolic compounds are high. These compounds are antioxidants that protect the oil from oxidation (aka rancidity) and provide the sharp, ‘peppery’ (officially called ‘pungency’) flavors that differentiate these oils from the non-virgin grades of oil.”
Strictly speaking, a virgin olive oil is one that was extracted mechanically, with no chemical treatment. Things get a little sketchy in the United States of America, however.
“The confusion,” explains Jim, “comes from the fact that the term ‘extra virgin’ isn’t regulated in America. In the European Union, extra virgin carries a very specific meaning that’s written into the law. Under the definition of the International Olive Oil Council, an organization based in Spain that regulates nearly 90% of the world’s olive oil producers, extra virgin olive oil must be mechanically pressed directly from olives with no added heat or chemicals, contain no more than 0.8% free fatty acid, and have a balanced flavor profile.” (Fatty acids are released as the oil degrades, leading to off flavors and, eventually, rancidity. Virgin olive oil can contain up to 2.0% acidity.)
“But those rules don’t apply in the United States,” Jim wrote, “and much of the olive oil labeled ‘extra virgin’ sold here doesn’t meet the standard. Olive oil that’s poorly made and doesn’t taste good can be refined, blended with a little virgin oil to give it some flavor, and called extra virgin. It’s not illegal, but it’s wrong.”
This is why you see such a huge variation in price point between bottles of “extra virgin” olive oil at the grocery store. To make good olive oil, “fruit must be handled carefully and pressed within 48 hours or so to prevent both oxidation and fermentation which produce flavor defects in the oil. Milling also requires skill and experience,” explained Jim. “The ‘bad’ oils may use olives that have been stored carelessly for long periods of time, may be milled under less than ideal conditions, and generally emerge from the initial extraction process with many flavor defects that makes them taste so bad they can’t be used as-is. These oils are refined using high heat, pressure, and chemical solvents to render them neutral, a process called rectification. Some oils undergo more manipulation so they meet the chemical standards for extra virgin, like reducing the level of free fatty acids sometimes referred to as an oil’s acidity.”
After the defects have been removed or neutralized, “some virgin oil is blended back in to provide a little flavor, and the oils are sold outside of the EU where they can be called “extra virgin” even though they don’t meet the standard.”
I asked Jim if he thought refined and “lite” oils were garbage, to which he replied “I think so. They’re basically overpriced vegetable oil.”
Who can you trust for good olive oil?
You can’t trust the United States government, or the the label on the bottle, but there is a third party of olive oil enthusiasts that have your back.
“The only way to ensure your supermarket olive oil really qualifies as extra virgin is to buy oils certified by the California Olive Oil Council,” Jim wrote. “An industry group that promotes California olive oils, the COOC tests its member’s oils to make sure they meet the international standard. The COOC has lobbied for years to get the FDA to regulate extra virgin like the Europeans, but a trade group of the importers of the refined blend oil fights it. They claim the COOC just wants to limit competition with its members, which is true, but they also wants consumers to know the difference between extra virgin and refined blends. While most stores do sell true extra virgin olive oils from the traditional Mediterranean countries, it’s hard to find them without tasting. Things like harvest dates, olive varieties, and geographic details help, but there’s no guarantee. If you can’t find a certified California oil, find a source you can trust.”
Should you care about where the olives are grown?
“I think any place that can grow olives can make good olive oil and some very bad oils come from places that have grown them for millennia,” explained Jim. “The Italians complain that Spanish oil is bland, and the Spanish call Italian oil bitter. Cultural preferences mean different production, so the Italians mostly pick early and the Spanish mostly pick later for lower pungency. But there are mild Italian oils and pungent Spanish oils, so it’s really more about the production.”
If you prefer one country’s methods to another, make sure you take a close look at the writing on the bottle. “The label must say “Product of X” and not “Bottled in X”,” wrote Jim, “and the EU has tightened restrictions on rebottling, but it only applies to oils sold there [in Europe].” According to The Organization for Certification and Supervision of Agricultural Products, Protected designation of origin (PDO) and protected geographical indication (PGI) refer to olive oils with “exceptional properties and quality derived from their place of origin as well as from the way of their production”
“Cold pressed” doesn’t mean much in the US
As with eggs, companies that sell olive oil like to plaster their packaging that make their product sound fancier, healthier, and more choice than it actually is.
- Cold pressed or cold extracted: “Cold pressed is mostly meaningless since the IOC standards include a maximum production temperature (80℉), from the hot water used to separate the oil from the paste and other liquids faster,” wrote Jim. Though not regulated in the United States, the difference between cold-pressed and cold-extracted is regulated in Europe; the former term may only be used if the oil was physically pressed from the olives, not extracted by a process involving a centrifuge.
- First cold pressed: This is the oil came from the very first pressing, the temperature of which is relative to the climate of the country it was pressed in.
- Unfiltered: According to oliveoil.com, most olive oil is filtered (run through cellulose pads or diatomaceous earth) and/or racked (allowed to rest so the sediment settles on the bottom of the tank) to remove bioactive particles like bits of fruit, or residual amounts of water. Some people claim unfiltered oil has a better flavor but, according to Jim “most producers of good oil filter by gravity (instead of pressure) since the olive solids can cause a flavor defect.” If you do opt to use an unfiltered oil with a lot of sediment, make sure to use it up quickly, as those bits of fruit and water can eventually lead to the presence of flavor defects.
- Light or lite: This is a refined oil that has been after pressing. It’s light in color and flavor, not fat.
Can one olive oil do it all (including deep frying)?
“I cook almost everything in extra virgin olive oil,” wrote Jim, “and I tell customers to get an extra virgin they can afford to use with abandon. Any true extra virgin can be used for both cooking and finishing, but I’ll often use older or milder (the pungency fades over time) oils for cooking and a younger or more pungent oil for finishing where I might taste it more.”
In terms of frying, a real-deal extra virgin oil works just fine.“The smoke point for true extra virgin oil is from 375-425℉,” explained Jim, and deep frying happens between 350℉ and 375℉. “Even high-heat roasting or grilling over direct heat won’t make the oils smoke. I don’t think home cooks ever need to get an oil smoking hot,” he added. “Once it’s smoking, it’s basically burnt.”