Culinary Arts

Complete Olive Oil Guide: Regular Olive Oil Vs. Extra Virgin, Different Types of Olive Oil, and How to Pick the Best Olive Oil

Written by MasterClass

Apr 15, 2019 • 4 min read

From salad dressings to sautéing, olive oil is a near-ubiquitous ingredient in the kitchen. But how much do you know about this multipurpose oil? For example, did you know that there are many different kinds of olive oil beyond extra virgin olive oil, or that olive oil has a lower smoke point than vegetable oil?

Learn more about the kitchen staple below.


What Is Olive Oil?

Olive oil is a cooking oil made by pressing fresh olives. It has a dark green or golden hue and a buttery taste with pepper undertones. Italy, Greece, and Spain produce most of the world’s olive oil supply, which is fitting, since olive oil has been a staple of Mediterranean cuisine for centuries.

Is Olive Oil Healthy?

Olive oil is one of the healthiest cooking oils. It has a high content of monounsaturated fats that lower bad LDL cholesterol and omega-9 fatty acids, which reduce blood pressure and improves heart health.

What’s the Difference Between Extra Virgin, Virgin, and Light Olive Oil?

Most olive oil in supermarkets is labeled “extra virgin,” but extra virgin is only one of several types of olive oil.

  • Extra Virgin: Extra virgin olive oil is the highest quality and most expensive olive oil available. The oil is extracted by grinding and pressing olives; no other chemicals, heat, or processes are used. According to the International Olive Council (IOC), extra virgin olive oil contains a low presence of oleic acid—that’s the omega-9 fatty acid that is linked to good health. Extra virgin olive oil tends to be darker in color than lower quality oils, somewhere between a golden yellow and a dark green. EVOO has a distinct olive flavor, and in the highest quality oils, you should be able to taste almost a little bit of spiciness. Extra virgin olive oil has perfect flavor with no flaws.
  • Virgin: Virgin olive oil is the second highest quality of olive oil, one step down in quality and price from EVOO. It is produced in the same manner as extra virgin olive oil, and has good flavor with minimal flaws.
  • Light: Despite its name, light olive oil does not mean that this variety of oil has fewer calories or a lower fat content. Instead, this label refers to the oil’s lighter color and neutral flavor. Light olive oil is a refined oil, produced using heat after the first pressing of virgin oil. Rather than a deep green, light olive oil has a golden yellow hue. It keeps longer on the shelf and has a higher smoke point than other types of olive oil, but also has fewer nutrients due to the heat-pressing.

3 Types of Olive Oil Processes

There are a few key terms you may see on a bottle of olive oil that you will want to decipher:

  • Refined: Refined olive oils undergo a second production after pressing. The refining process will often include the presence of heat or chemicals. Some refined olive oils introduce other types of vegetable oils into the mix as well, resulting in an overall lower-quality oil.
  • Unrefined: Unrefined olive oils are produced without any chemical or heat extraction processes, and are thus higher in quality. The olives and resulting oil may be washed, filtered, and decanted, but that’s it!
  • Cold-pressed: Cold-pressed is the least refined and most natural process in olive oil production. As such, cold-pressed oils will be higher in quality and price.

3 Factors to Consider When Cooking With Olive Oil

When choosing an olive oil for a particular dish or preparation, consider three factors:

  • Flavor: In general, a lighter, more neutral oil is best for cooking, and a richer oil is best for sauces and finishing, when you can taste the depth of flavor.
  • Smoke point: The best oil for sautéing is actually vegetable oil, not olive oil, because vegetable oil has a higher smoke point (and is less susceptible to burning than olive oil).
  • Price: Olive oil is often expensive, and there’s no reason to use it when you cook with heat. Instead, use a less expensive oil with a neutral flavor and high smoke point to cook, and save your precious EVOO for finishing.

What’s the Best Olive Oil for Frying?

Extra virgin olive oil has a smoke point around 375° Fahrenheit, which is low compared to many other common cooking oils like canola oil, coconut oil, and avocado oil. A refined or light olive oil will have a higher smoke point than an extra virgin oil, and would be the best choice for frying in olive oil. However, using canola oil for frying would give you an even higher smoke point, and would also be more cost effective. Learn more about smoke points with our comprehensive guide here.

What’s the Best Olive Oil for Salad Dressings?

Extra virgin olive oil is the best choice for dressings as it introduces a strong peppery flavor to the mix. Even the simplest of salad dressings can be elevated by a high quality olive oil. Or, try finishing a basic tomato and mozzarella Caprese salad with just a drizzle of the finest extra virgin olive oil.

What’s the Best Olive Oil for Dipping?

When serving olive oil as a side dish for dipping, opt for the highest quality extra virgin olive oil. The taste and texture will be front and center, so choose a variety with the best flavor. High quality oils from different regions will reflect the climate where they were produced, whether it’s an old world Italian olive oil or a new world oil that comes from a California olive ranch. If you really love to explore flavors of olive oil, consider having an annual tasting party after the new oils come out in the fall. It will cut down on the cost when you taste in a group and it will help you learn together how to articulate what you’re tasting.