In all the time I’ve been teaching cooking classes (about 20 years now!), the things that students ask about most often are salt and olive oil. I think this is because a) they’re common in every kitchen, and b) the choices for each have been multiplying quickly. So we’re intimately familiar with, and yet increasingly confused by, both.
I covered how I learned about salt and how to add it to taste in this blog post, and then about using different kinds of salt in this one. So today, in honor of olive harvest season—which starts around the end of August and goes through around November— let’s talk about olive oil, starting with the most common question.
Q. What’s the deal with extra virgin? What does that mean exactly?
A. Basically, to make olive oil, you press olives and then separate the oil out of the resulting liquid. Virgin oil is made using a cold press (heat will merit more oil, but it’ll be a lesser quality) and it must pass tests for maximum acidity and taste. Extra virgin is exactly the same, except the acidity and taste test requirements are stricter.
Solids leftover from the pressing are called pomace, and that can be further pressed, sometimes using heat. The resulting oil is technically called pomace oil, but you’ll rarely see the word on a can or bottle. More often, it’ll just say “olive oil” —no “virgin.”
Q. What about “light” olive oils I see at the supermarket?
A. Typically, those aren’t 100% olive oil. They’ve been mixed with something like canola oil to give them a lighter olive flavor, which makes them good for times when you’d like some olive oil health benefits without full-on olive oil flavor.
But make no mistake—they’re still 100% fat, so they’re not “light” in calories.
Q. I know extra virgin is the best—but how come some bottles cost $8 and others cost $20?
A. Here’s where things get interesting. All of what I said about extra virgin, virgin, and pomace is based on the standards of the International Olive Council. But the problem is that many countries don’t abide by the IOC labeling rules and—you guessed it—the U.S. is one of them. Which means that when you see “extra virgin” on a label in the U.S., there could be pretty much anything in the bottle.
Most likely, an inexpensive “extra virgin” is an olive oil that’s been rectified—that is, maybe it was too acidic or it had some off flavors, so the producer manipulated it to correct it, to make it taste okay, then bottled it up with an extra virgin label, and shipped it off to your local supermarket.
Q. So I shouldn’t use $8 olive oil?
A. It’s perfectly fine to use inexpensive olive oil—virgin, extra virgin, rectified, or otherwise—for your everyday cooking. These Pan-Seared Steaks with Boursin, for example. In fact, I don’t recommend cooking with $20 oil unless you literally have money to burn.
Q. So what about that $20 bottle? Is that extra virgin?
A. Chances are, a $20 bottle is indeed extra virgin, the real deal. To check, look for a certification logo somewhere on the package (more on that in a sec). You can also look for information about what type of olives were used, when and where they were harvested, when and where the oil was bottled, a use by date, etc. Basically, the more information on the bottle, the higher the pedigree—and the more likely the oil will be worth the money.
A. I know. It’s confusing. But domestic organizations have taken up the cause of the IOC. Both the California Olive Oil Council and the North American Olive Oil Association have quality controls similar to those of the IOC and also certification logos that appear on participating producers’ extra virgin oils. So you can look for those.
Q. Okay—so do I do with $20 olive oil if it isn’t for cooking?
A. Excellent question! And one I’ll answer in the next post.
Recipes for cooking with olive oil
Simple, Satisfying Minestrone Soup
Chicken Stew with Potatoes, Carrots, and Peas
Cornmeal-Crusted Petrale with Tomato-Tarragon Relish
Pan-Roasted Salmon with Cilantro-Scallion Salsa
Sautéed Chicken with Parsnip, Apple, and Sherry Pan Sauce
Pan-Seared Steaks with Boursin (and Merlot Pan Sauce, if you choose)