You took your time in the grocery store and bought the perfect ripe and juicy tomatoes for a Caprese salad. You carefully looked at each pack of mozzarella on the cheese aisle until you found just the right one. You picked the freshest basil they had — and went back home to cook dinner.
You followed all the instructions, seasoned with sea salt, and poured olive oil to give your Caprese salad that Mediterranean taste and smell.
The oil turned out to be flavorless.
Years ago, this kept happening to me every time I’d cook food where olive oil was an essential ingredient. Until I got tired of not knowing how to buy olive oil and started researching online.
In this blog post, I’m going to share my most useful tips and tricks for choosing olive oil (and my top picks that you can buy in pretty much any grocery store).
The Different Types of Olive Oil
The #1 thing you need to know about olive oil is that not all olive oil is alike. There are three types of olive oil based on how much processing it took the producer to make it:
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Regular (light) Olive oil
- Pomace oil
What’s the difference between them?
The less processing required to make olive oil, the more natural, aromatic, and flavorful it is. This is why the highest-quality olive oil, known as extra virgin olive oil, is literally “the juice that comes out of freshly-picked olives from the olive trees.”
After that juice comes out, it takes more and more effort to extract oil until there’s nothing left to extract from the olives. So olive oil makers heat the olives and use chemical solvents to get the most of the season’s harvest.
Of course, this additional processing produces lower-quality olive oil without much taste and a smell that’s nothing like the original. These oils are named virgin olive oil, olive oil, pomace oil, and refined oil.
As a consumer, you can be confident that you’re always buying the highest-quality olive oil by looking for seven words on the bottle: first cold pressed extra virgin olive oil.
Extra Virgin Olive Oil
That juice that comes out of the fruit of olive trees that I was talking about? This is known as extra virgin olive oil.
Extra virgin olive oil is the best olive oil for cooking. It comes from the first press of the olives. When olives are ripe and ready to harvest, workers or machines pick them from the olive trees they grow on their fields. The olives are washed to remove any dirt, leaves, or branches that were collected as part of the harvest and ground into a paste (that looks similar to olive tapenade you spread on bruschetta).
The best extra virgin olive oil comes from olive paste that’s spun in a centrifuge. Spinning is less harmful to the olives than crushing, which produces olive oil with a milder taste. This type of olive oil is the most expensive and is labeled in supermarkets as “first cold pressed extra virgin olive oil” or “first pressed olive oil.”
When you have the option, always buy first cold pressed extra virgin olive oil. It’s by far the best olive oil that you can find in the grocery store for your home cooking. It has a thick texture, greenish color, and a buttery and peppery taste.
First pressed extra virgin olive oil is an amazing ingredient that can elevate any recipe at home, no matter what cuisine you’ve chosen for dinner tonight. It has a smoke point of 410°F or 210°C. Use it for dressing salads and cooking (i.e. sautéeing and frying) over medium-high heat.
One of my all-time favorites, especially if you live in the U.S., is California Olive Oil Ranch 100% Extra Virgin Olive Oil.
- 100% CALIFORNIA EXTRA VIRGIN OLIVE OIL: Award-winning California Olive Ranch 100% California Extra Virgin Olive Oil (EVOO), crafted from...
- STAPLE IN YOUR KITCHEN: Features well-rounded notes of a floral, buttery and fruity taste. Versatile across multiple applications - use it...
- DIET FRIENDLY: Our extra virgin olive oils are verified non-GMO by the Non-GMO Project, and certified kosher by Orthodox Union. It’s also...
This is cold-pressed extra-virgin olive oil made entirely from Californian olives. No high heat or chemicals were used in the process, which makes it aromatic, delicious, and healthy. It has a grassy, creamy, and slightly fruity taste that’s well-rounded and perfect for any cooking technique.
Regular (Light) Olive Oil
Olive oil is also known as “regular” olive oil or “light” olive oil. It’s usually a blend of virgin olive oil and refined olive oil. Which means that heat and chemical solvents were used to extract the oil and remove flaws from the olives.
Instead of a deep green color, it has a bright yellow hue. Because of the heat pressing and chemical processing, it has less nutrients than extra virgin olive oil. Light olive oil has a higher smoke point at about 470°F (240°C). Which makes it an all-purpose cooking oil used commonly for grilling and baking.
Pomace oil is the lowest quality olive oil you can find in the supermarket. “Pomace” means the residue found after the olives have been ground, spun, and crushed to extract the juice from them.
Some experts go as far as to say that pomace oil is made from “the leftovers of olives” during production and that “it shouldn’t be called olive oil at all.”
Still, it’s affordable and many home cooks use pomace oil for deep frying. It has a high smoke point 470°F (240°C) and is relatively tasteless and odorless.
How to Buy the Best Olive Oil
Above all, buy only first pressed extra virgin olive oil if you want to get the best olive oil for you and your family. It has a thick texture, nutty taste, and natural smell that no other oil can rival and contains all the nutrients from freshly squeezed olives from the gardens.
Learn to read the label. The best olive oil comes from Italian, Spanish, Portuguese, and Greek olives when grown in Europe, and Californian olives when grown in the US. It’s made from 100% cold pressed extra virgin olive oil, and not a blend of cold pressed and another, lesser grade olive oil.
Buy only olive oil sold in dark and opaque bottles (or, in some cases, metal cans). Olive oil and sunlight don’t really get along. Sunlight heats olive oil to high temperatures and harms its taste and aroma characteristics. Avoid olive oil sold in clear glass bottles, even if it’s tempting to look at the oil itself.
Pay more attention to the “harvest date” than the “best by” date. Producers don’t print the harvest date on all of their olive oils, especially when they were made from a blend. But whenever it’s available, read it. The harvest date means when the olives were picked from the trees. Olive oil is best consumed up to 18 months after harvest.
If you don’t know or trust the producer yet, look for one of these olive oil certification seals:
The North America Olive Oil Association (NAOOA), California Olive Oil Council (COOC), and Extra Virgin Alliance (EVA) are organizations that protect and verify the origin and quality of extra virgin olive oil. When an olive oil carries one or multiple of these seals, it means that their bottles were pulled from stores, the oil inside was tested professionally, and verified to be as said on the label.
Personally, I don’t buy any regular (light) olive oil or pomace olive oil. Their quality characteristics are simply not where I want a product as essential as cooking oil to be. Nevertheless, I know that extra virgin olive oil can be pricey and it is not the best oil for all kinds of cooking.
So if you’re looking for a healthy oil that can go to the highest temperatures your stove can reach, go for avocado oil or canola oil.
Wondering what to read next? I recently published the only guide on olive oil you’ll ever need.