Way back in the day, olive oil was made by either crushing fresh olives underfoot when wearing wooden sandals, with a mortar and pestle, with a stone roller, or in presses with circular millstones.
Today, the procedure has definitely been modernized in several ways, but for the best quality, most flavorful olive oils (think: extra virgin), it's still somewhat similar--olives are cleaned and then crushed in a mechanical mill, without the use of heat or chemicals, and the oil is separated from solids in a centrifuge.
This mechanical process preserves many of olive oil's health benefits:
Olive oil is absolutely packed with a variety of polyphenol compounds, which have antioxidant properties.
Thanks to its polyphenols and healthy fats, olive oil has been associated with reduced inflammation, improved heart, brain, and gut health, and more.
It primarily consists of healthy monounsaturated fats, such as anti-inflammatory oleic acid. It has a small percentage of omega-3s.
Olive oil contains phytosterols, which are bioactive compounds associated with reduced cholesterol and even certain types of cancer.
Olive oil differs from other popular oils such as canola oil, vegetable oil, and soybean oil in a few important ways. For one, these oils are almost always extracted using very large heat and plenty of chemicals, leading to less flavor and health benefits.
Plus, their fatty acid profile isn't nearly as impressive. Olive oil, on the other hand, is powerful in health benefits and flavor, making it great for use in dressings, as a dipping oil, or drizzling onto finished dishes.
In fact, any olive oil from the list below can be regarded as a healthier, more nutrient-dense pick than most other cooking oils on the market.
That said, not all olive oil is created equal. Different kinds of olive oil have different health benefits, flavors, and culinary applications. Keep reading to see which type is right for your pantry!
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
Extra virgin olive oil (EVOO) is often considered the gold standard in terms of flavor and health benefits. Here's what makes it special:
It's made only via mechanical methods (think: olives are pressed, the oil is separated from the pulp via centrifugation, and then the oil is filtered to remove any remaining solids), and never exposed to chemicals or heat.
EVOO is unrefined and cold-pressed, so it maintains very high levels of bioactive compounds, including oleuropein, hydroxytyrosol, and oleocanthal, which have anti-inflammatory, antioxidant, and anti-microbial properties.
It often has greenish hue, fresh grassy and floral aroma, and daring peppery flavor, which you can actually feel at the back of your throat. Milder (but still flavorful) varieties of EVOO also exist.
EVOO contains small levels of vitamin E (about 13% of your daily value per tablespoon ) and vitamin K (about
7% of your daily value).
Like all types of olive oil, EVOO contains beneficial phytosterols and oleic acid.
Regulations require that authentic EVOO not have any flavor defects.
How To Use It
To preserve the most nutrients and showcase it's bold flavor, try using extra virgin olive oil in one of these ways:
Some people even take a spoonful straight daily for the health advantages!
Fun fact: Contrary to popular belief, EVOO has a surprisingly large smoke point of (350 to 410 F), so these cooking styles are a-okay (just skip the deep frying!) :
Light frying (think: frying eggs)
Baking (in recipes where you want that classic olive oil flavor, such as this Gluten Free Lemon Olive Oil Cake)
Virgin Olive Oil
Not to be confused with extra virgin olive oil, virgin olive oil is actually pretty rare and hard to find--you often won't see it at your local grocery store. It is quite similar to EVOO, with a few minor differences:
Virgin olive oil is still mechanically extracted (meaning, with no chemicals or heat), so it contains many of the same health benefits as EVOO, such as high levels of polyphenol antioxidants.
Compared to EVOO, virgin olive oil is allowed to have some minor flavor defects, which may not even be noticeable to an untrained taster.
Virgin olive oils range in flavor and aroma, with some varieties being even stronger than certain EVOOs.
Like all types of olive oil, virgin olive oil contains beneficial phytosterols and oleic acid, and modest amounts of vitamin E and vitamin K.
How To Use It
If you can actually find it, you can use virgin olive oil in all the ways you'd use extra virgin olive oil--salad dressings, dipping or finishing oil, sautéing, roasting, light frying, baking.
Pure Olive Oil or Regular Olive Oil
Along with extra virgin olive oil, pure/regular olive oil (sometimes simply labeled"olive oil") is another common variety you'll find in grocery stores or online. Here's what makes it different:
Pure/regular olive oil is a combination of refined olive oil and 15%-25% virgin olive oil. The refined oil component is treated with some heat and chemicals to eliminate flavor defects.
Because the refining process does reduce levels of certain compounds, pure/regular olive oil has fewer health-boosting bioactive compounds than EVOO or virgin olive oil.
These oils are noticeably lighter in color than EVOO, and have a much more neutral flavor and aroma.
Pure/regular olive oil is still a good source of beneficial phytosterols and oleic acid, and contains modest amounts of vitamin E and vitamin K.
How To Use It
Many chefs believe pure olive oil a good general purpose cooking oil, because it has a higher smoke point than EVOO (around 470 F), mild flavor, and holds up well to high-heat cooking. Here are some good ways to use it:
Infused oils (combine some fresh herbs and olive oil in a sealed bottle and allow those flavors marinate for 1-2 weeks)
Regular olive oil also has some applications beyond the kitchen! Smooth it directly on your skin, or scrub it into your scalp for an extra dose of moisture.
Light Olive Oil or Extra Light Olive Oil
Along with extra virgin olive oil and pure olive oil, the other sort of olive oil you are going to see in grocery stores is light olive oil.
Light and extra light olive oils are a combination of refined olive oil and 5%-10% virgin olive oil. The refined oil component is treated with some heat and chemicals to eliminate flavor defects.
Because these oils have an even lower percentage of virgin olive oil than regular olive oil, their health benefits are proportionally reduced.
Don't confuse"light" for low in calories--in this case, light refers to the oil's almost completely neutral flavor and aroma.
Light and extra light olive oils are still a good source of beneficial phytosterols and oleic acid, and contain modest amounts of vitamin E and vitamin K
How To Use It
Because of its high smoke point (around 470 F), light olive oil is less likely to break down under very high temperatures--so it's a decent alternative for high heat cooking methods.
Baking (only in recipes where you don't want that classic olive oil flavor)
As a result of its relative lack of taste, you may not want to bother using mild olive oil as a dipping or finishing oil. It's too bland to impart much flavor of its own.
The wide world of olive oil can be confusing. But essentially, there are three main types of olive oil you'll find in grocery stores or online retailers: extra virgin olive oil, pure or regular olive oil, and light and extra light olive oil.
These olive oil types have different procedures of production, and so, different health benefits and flavor profiles--giving them each unique culinary uses. Our top pick? Well, we'll always be partial to a fantastic EVOO, but keeping one of these other types on your pantry--particularly for high heat cooking--isn't a bad idea either.