Olive oil is certainly a magical substance, used to marinate, sauté, bake, and preserve. It almost seems like the possibilities are endless.
Sometimes you’ll hear chefs raving about extra-virgin olive oil and suggesting that it’s the only way to go. But one walk down the supermarket aisle, and you’ll find yourself faced with an endless sea of options.
You’ll find a wide range in prices, sizes, and even colors. So when should you splurge on the top-shelf bottle of “extra-virgin” olive oil, and is it even that different from “light” olive oil?
What’s the Difference?
Simply put, though both olive oil and extra-virgin olive oil come from the fruit of the olive plant, there is a difference in how the oil is extracted and processed. This leads to differences in taste and how they react to the heat of cooking.
You’ll find that the regular stuff is usually lighter in color, and it costs less than the extra-virgin variety. It can sometimes carry a “pure olive oil” or “light olive oil” label.
This stuff is made from olive oil that is refined to get rid of any undesirable impurities. In order to do this, the olive oil is treated, either chemically or with heat. It is then blended with a bit of extra-virgin olive oil.
The resulting product is almost neutral in flavor, but it can withstand higher temperatures than its extra-virgin counterpart.
Extra-Virgin Olive Oil
If your bottle carries that premium “extra-virgin” certification, that means that it was not exposed to any chemical or heat treatment. It is made by grinding olives into a paste and then cold-pressing them to extract the oil.
This means, of course, that the resulting oil really highlights the flavors of the olives used. Extra-virgin olive oils can range in taste depending on the olives harvested. You’ll find herbal and fruity to bitter and peppery.
Because the oil has not been refined chemically or with heat, this version has a lower smoke point than its regular olive oil counterpart. If you choose to cook with it, you have to take care that you don’t burn the oil, giving your food an unpleasant taste.
Choosing the Right Olive Oil Variety
Whether you reach for olive oil or extra-virgin olive oil is dependent on what you intend to do with it.
When cooking, regular olive oil is going to be a safer bet, thanks to its higher smoke point. You’re less likely to burn the oil. It also won’t influence the flavor of your dish as much with its neutral flavor.
However, if you’re hoping to use the oil for dressings, dips, finishing touches, or any other uncooked applications, always reach for extra-virgin olive oil. It will bring some top-notch flavors and nice subtleties to your food.