Aren't All Olive Oils the Same?
If you’ve ever gone looking for olive oil at the grocery store, you might have been stumped by all the different varieties offered which seem to look the same. With so many specificities such as “extra-virgin” or “unrefined,” it can be hard to know which is right for you. That’s why we’re here to arm you with the proper vocabulary so that you can make the right choice on your next stock up.
The first thing you need to know is the hierarchy of olive oil quality. At the top sits extra virgin olive oil (or evoo), second best is virgin, followed by pure olive oil or olive oil, and lastly, refined olive oil.
Extra virgin is the highest grade an olive oil can receive. To receive this label, it must meet the following requirements: it must be unrefined, cold extracted/cold pressed, and its acidity cannot be greater than 0.8%. An olive oil that is unrefined means that it hasn’t been treated with chemicals in order to extract the oil. Refining is done to increase the yield, thereby making it easier and cheaper for consumers, however, that is how taste and nutrients are lost. An extra virgin olive oil has a natural aroma and is free of defects in taste or smell, which would include tasting “rancid” or “musty.” Evoos should smell grassy or fruity and they can taste buttery, bitter, robust, or peppery. In fact, pepperiness is a good indicator of how healthy your olive oil is because that means there are lots of polyphenols, which are healthy antioxidants. In addition to being unrefined, an evoo must be cold extracted or cold pressed, meaning that the process that is used to extract the oil never exceeds 27 degrees because higher temperatures would alter the taste and quality. These two terms are sometimes used interchangeably but if you want to be exact, cold extracted means that the oil was retrieved by modern or mechanical methods, i.e. a centrifuge. Cold pressed means that oil was retrieved by pressing the olives with a press to extract the oil. Lastly, to be considered extra virgin, the acidity must never exceed 0.8%. That is, it cannot contain more than 8g of free oleic acid (a monounsaturated fat) per 100g in an oil.
Why is acidity important when considering olive oil? An olive oil that is high in acidity could mean that the olives were bad or bruised, either from bugs or climate. There could have been too long of a delay between picking and harvesting; olives should be harvested as soon as possible to prevent oxidizing, which increases the acidity. It is important to note that you cannot tell the acidity of an olive oil by tasting it, it must be done with a ph test. Anything below 0.3% is excellent, and our Early Harvest olive oil has even been as low as 0.2%! This varies year to year but our 2019 harvest was tested at 0.33%.
So why should you invest in a proper extra virgin olive oil? Well, evoos, and olive oil in general, are beneficial for us because of their antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties. In addition, studies have shown that because of the monounsaturated fats, olive oil may prevent heart disease and other chronic diseases. When choosing your olive oil, it's important to read the bottle before buying; real high quality extra virgin olive oil will give you ample information such as where it came from, the acidity level, and the harvest date or best before date. The more specific the label is, the better you can trust it.
The next best quality of olive oil you can get is virgin olive oil. Like evoos, virgin olive oil is unrefined but has a slightly higher acidity, sitting between 0.8 and 2%. Virgin olive oils may have some slight defects in taste and smell but will be cheaper than evoo. It may not be as healthy for you, but it’s still better than most other oils.
After virgin oils comes pure olive oils, which are a blend of unrefined and refined olive oils. Refined olive oil is olive oil that has been chemically extracted and whose acidity cannot be greater than 3%. Olive oil gets refined in order to increase the yield but as mentioned before, there are less nutrients. The benefits of refined olive oil is that since you get a bigger yield, it’s cheaper for the customer. It also has a higher smoke point than the unrefined olive oils so if your recipe calls for higher temperatures, this is your ideal choice.
At the bottom of the ladder are lampante oils and pomace oils. Lampante oil is oil with an unpleasant taste and aroma and has to be refined in order to be deemed edible. It was traditionally used as oil for lamps, hence the name. Pomace oil is oil that is chemically extracted -with solvents- from the leftover oil, stems, seeds, and skins from when the olives are pressed. These two oils are not fit for human consumption without further processing or refining.
Ok, so now you know the deal is with olive oils. But how should you use them? Extra virgin olive oils are best used for dips, salads, or drizzling over your finished dishes. Many people are under the impression that you shouldn’t cook with extra virgin olive oils but you can, you just want to avoid really high temperatures, such as searing or smoking your evoo. If you’re looking for one, our Early Harvest Extra Virgin Olive Oil is the highest quality olive oil we carry. Each year, in the village of Sacrafano, Italy, olives are hand-picked within 20km of the mill and crushed within 48 hours. Each year brings an oil that is slightly different than before, with 2019’s harvest boasting a bitter and buttery olive oil with an acidity of 0.33%. This oil comes from a producer so small that you won’t find this anywhere else but at Aurelius. With its smooth and grassy flavour punctuated by a mild peppery kick, no wonder it’s one of our most popular evoos.
But it’s not the only extra virgin olive oil we have. If single varietals (made from one type of olive) are more of your thing, we carry three other unflavoured evoos. The Greek Kalamata, which offers a robust and earthy flavour; the Spanish Arbequina is fruity, smooth and like the Early Harvest, also features a mild peppery aftertaste. However, if you like a strong peppery finish, go for the California Blend. Two types of olives are blended for this; the Arbequina and Arbosana.
The great thing about olive oils is that they can be naturally flavoured, either by infusions (such as the Garlic or Basil), where they are steeped together for four to six weeks, or with extracts, like the Blood Orange EVOO.
As you can see, when looking for olive oil, you have a lot to choose from. To say picking an olive oil could be overwhelming is an understatement. But now you are equipped with the knowledge to navigate the grocery store or your favourite olive oil boutique (Aurelius, of course!)
To ensure that your olive oil lives its longest life, make sure that it is stored somewhere cool and dark. We want to avoid heat, light, oxygen. That’s why we carry some beautiful oil dispensers, or cruets, to store your favourite olive oils (and balsamics). Check them out, along with our full catalogue of olive oils at https://aureliusfoodco.com/collections/extra-virgin-olive-oil