Every now and then, a health-conscious friend will ask me if cold-pressed olive oil is a better choice than other oils in the store.
My short answer is always “yes.” If you’re here because you found yourself asking the same question, there’s a pretty good chance you’re already cooking with it.
Confused? Let me help.
The answer comes down to how olive oil is made.
Most of the olive oil carried by grocery stores, you see, is produced in three stages:
- The olives are picked from the trees;
- They’re ground into a paste;
- Oil is extracted from it.
How Olive Oil Is Made (And Why It Matters)
Olive oil is extracted from olives, the fruit of the olive tree Olea europaea (Latin for “European olive”), which grows along the Mediterranean Sea coast.
Statistics database NationMaster lists out the ten countries that grow the most olives in the world. They are, in descending order, Spain, Italy, Turkey, Greece, Morocco, Egypt, Algeria, Portugal, Tunisia, and Syria. Unsurprisingly, they’re also the top olive oil producers.
The olives are picked, sometimes by hand, other times with machines; washed to get rid of any dirt, leaves, or twigs from the harvest; then ground into a paste, from which oil can be extracted by pressing.
Workers spread the olive paste on hemp mats, laying each mat on top of the other in a stack that very much resembles a döner kebab.
When the stack becomes tall enough, it’s placed in a hydraulic press. The press applies thousands of pounds of pressure to the layered mats, squeezing the oil from the paste as it flows down in a container.
A few hundred years ago, olive oil was extracted from olives with mills. Huge granite stones were turned by hand by one or a few men. In rarer cases, a donkey would move the rocks by pulling in a circular motion.
Eventually, the Industrial Revolution came along and brought the hydraulic press, which proved to be a faster, cheaper, more reliable, and less labor-intensive machine for the job.
Why am I telling you all of this?
What First Cold Pressed Really Means
Because the friction that comes from grinding the olives into a paste and pressing that paste to squeeze out the oil from it generates heat—and heat, as you’re probably connecting the dots by now, is the enemy of high-quality olive oil.
At all stages of the production process, the processing temperature shouldn’t exceed 80.6°F (27°C), or the oil will lose its market value. That oil, literally the first juice that comes out of the paste when it’s pressed, is known as “cold pressed,” “first pressed,” “first cold pressed,” or simply “extra virgin” olive oil.
Extra virgin olive oil is, by definition, pure and unadulterated olive oil that comes from the first cold press of the olives. In fact, olive oil that doesn’t come from the first cold press shouldn’t be labeled as extra virgin.
In other words, extra virgin olive oil is (drumroll, please) first cold pressed olive oil. It’s just that some brands are better at exploiting this fact to make their oils stand out on the shelves at the store than others.
This is why, at the beginning of the post, I told you chances were high you were already cooking with cold-pressed olive oil.
Once the extra virgin olive oil is squeezed from the olive paste, there’s still a fair amount of oil left in it. However, it needs to be extracted by pressing the paste to an increasingly higher temperature (virgin or light olive oil) or using chemical solvents to separate the oil from the pulp (pomace oil).
“If that’s the case, Jim,” some of you may be thinking, “then why aren’t all extra virgin olive oils at the store alike?”
I’ve noticed the difference in texture, aroma, and flavor myself. Clearly, some olive oils are superior to others, no matter what it says on the label.
To understand why (and be able to explain it to you in a semi-coherent manner), I referred to the 2009 book Gourmet and Health-Promoting Specialty Oils, which I consider to be nothing short of the almanac of cooking oils.
Why Store-Bought Olive Oils Differ in Quality
“The higher price of olive oil and its reputation as a healthy and delectable oil make it a preferred target for defrauders,” says the first sentence in a section called “Purity Authenticity, and Traceability” in the chapter for olive oil.
The reality is that, to keep churning out the sheer number of tin cans and glass bottles that they do, most brands source their olive oils from third parties and blend them before bottling.
Read into the back of the labels on most oils at the store, and, more often than not, you’ll notice something in the likes of, “A blend of high-quality olive oils from select olive varities grown in a number of Mediterranean countries.” This is marketing speak for “we buy and blend our oils.”
And though there’s nothing wrong with that per se, it occasionally allows each of the parties in the supply chain to do several shenanigans, such as extracting oil from grubby, dried out olives that should have been used for lower-grade products instead; storing the olives in piles for a long time before pressing; or blending high-quality with lower-quality olive oils.
All of these tricks keep costs down and boost profit margins. But they also affect the quality of the olive oil you put in your salad.
How to Select High-Quality Olive Oil
So what can you, as a consumer, do about this? How can you separate fact from fiction—and select the highest-quality olive oils at the store?
Glad you asked. Or was that me? Anyway…
First and foremost, buy extra virgin olive oil and skip on the lower-grade oils pressed at temperatures higher than 80.6°F (27°C) or extracted from the pulp using chemical solvents.
Also, remember that extra virgin olive oil is, by definition, the oil that comes from the first cold press of the olives. As much as brands like to highlight that, it’s the same as a car company telling you that their new car is a vehicle fit for the road. I didn’t know that was a feature!
The important thing is to buy your oil from brands that you can trust. Yes, trust is a tricky thing—and the brands I trust are probably going to be different than those you trust.
As a starting point, I like to research the history, ownership, and reputation of a food brand before I buy its products. Frankly speaking, it’s a habit that’s saved me a lot of frustration.
There are a few international organizations that try to protect olive oil producers and consumers from fraud. That includes the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC) and the North American Olive Oil Council (NAOOC). When you see their stamps on the packaging of a product, that’s typically a sign that it comes from a trustworthy producer.
But picking good oil is as much about the origin as it is about the brand.
In general, there are two kinds of extra virgin olive oil sold at stores: single-varietal and multi-varietal (also known as “blends”).
Single-varietal oils, like California Olive Ranch 100% California Extra Virgin Olive Oil or Partanna Sicilian Extra Virgin Olive Oil, are considered higher-grade as their producers usually have more control over the growing, harvesting, and pressing of the olives. But they’re also more expensive.
Multi-varietal oils, like Filippo Berio Extra Virgin Olive Oil or Colavita Extra Virgin Olive Oil, are typically blended from olive oils from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. Most brands are good at sourcing and quality control, but these oils are still considered less-grade as it’s significantly trickier to produce a consistent product.
Unlike wine, which gets better as it ages, olive oil is best consumed shortly after it’s extracted. This is why you shouldn’t care as much about the “best by” date as you should about the “harvest date,” which tells you when the olives were picked. Keep in mind that not all brands will disclose the harvest date on the label (or print it on the bottle).
But it will be easy for you to pick out fresh oils from the ones that do. Once, I came across a 12-year old oil at the supermarket! No wonder it sold at a discount…
Yes, cold-pressed olive oil is better than other oils at the store. After all, it’s extra virgin olive oil—or the highest-grade olive oil you could possibly get your hands on.
Producers’ marketing gimmicks aside, picking out a good olive oil is easier than you might think. Do your due diligence on the brands you buy from, making sure they have a reputation for producing quality products with a traceable supply chain. Look for IOOC and NAOOC stamps on the label and, when in doubt, buy the product with the most recent harvest date.