All About Olive Oil: Cooking, Tasting and Buying

What makes extra-virgin olive oil so healthful? And what other types of olive oils are there? Learn about olive oil how to choose and use this ancient ingredient.

  • Pouring Olive Oil
    Extra-virgin olive oil is pressed from both green and black olives.
    Photo by Tim Nauman

  • Pouring Olive Oil

You’ve likely heard how healthy the Mediterranean diet is, replete with fish, vegetables, whole grains and legumes — all dressed with olive oil. But you may not have heard the complete truth about how to use olive oil.

First, realize there are differences in how to use olive oil if you’re choosing it for flavor rather than cooking with it for health. Extra-virgin olive oil is expensive, but fresh-pressed, unfiltered extra-virgin olive oils can contain at least 30 beneficial phenolic compounds. These strong antioxidant phenols neutralize dangerous free radicals in your body.

You can tell an extra-virgin olive oil is rich in phenols if it’s slightly bitter and astringent, peppery, and has a “bite.” The most healthful extra-virgin olive oils taste this way. Light, heat and oxidation damage phenols, however, so store your top-quality olive oil in a dark bottle in a cool place, and plan to use it within a year.

Don’t cook with expensive extra-virgin olive oil if you’re after maximum health benefits, because temperatures above 200 degrees Fahrenheit damage the beneficial phenols. Reach for your best extra-virgin olive oil to drizzle on already-cooked foods, or as a dip for bread. Also use it to dress salads with this classic vinaigrette recipe: Blend 3 parts olive oil to 1 part vinegar. Whisk in a little Dijon mustard — to help the vinaigrette stay in emulsion — and season with salt and pepper. This simple vinaigrette can also be a marinade.

Many chefs — usually interested mostly in flavor, not health — start their recipes by sautéing something “in extra-virgin olive oil.” You can save money without sacrificing flavor by buying less expensive regular olive oil for cooking. These oils come from later pressings, and the olives may have been processed with heat, chemical solvents or other methods to extract more oil. With a smoke point of about 350 degrees, regular olive oil is a good cooking oil that imparts a mild flavor.

The United States has no official “standards of identity” for olive oil, and a 2010 University of California, Davis, report found that most olive oil labeled “extra-virgin” was, in fact, fraudulent. Top-quality extra-virgin olive oils are often labeled with their acidity — the lower the acidity, the better the oil. (For more information, see the North American Olive Oil Association’s proposed standards.)

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