Learn more about the different types of olive oil, including how they’re made and which olive oil types are best for cooking vs. using as a finishing oil.
As you might guess, olive oil is freshly-pressed juice that comes from an olive tree. It’s also one of the staples of the Mediterranean diet, not to mention one of the most beloved forms of cooking fat. With all that in mind, chances are high that you’ve purchased at least one bottle of olive oil in the past year.
And if you did, your heart and body are better for it. Compared to opting for a saturated fat such as shortening or butter, cooking with an unsaturated fat (which includes any type of olive oil) can help lower risk for certain types of cancer, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and other chronic diseases, the American Heart Association (AHA) and countless studies suggest. Just ½ tablespoon per day might be enough to move the needle, according to a May 2022 study in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology.
We know it’s good for us and we’re well aware that Rachael Ray swears by it so much, her nickname “EVOO” has earned its own dictionary entry. But do you know why types of olive oil tout different terms on the label?
Ahead, discover the difference between olive oil types by “virgin” level. Then we’ll spill about how to select, store, and enjoy your favorite olive oil type.
How to Decode the Different Types of Olive Oil
To make any of the different types of olive oil, olives are harvested, washed, crushed, then “malaxed.” The latter step is a process that involves churning continuously under temperature-controlled conditions so the fruit will release its oil droplets, the California Olive Oil Council explains. A spin in a centrifuge separates the solid olive parts from the oil, and the liquid portion remaining is the olive oil we know and love (and love to cook with).
The labeling of the different types of olive oil is dictated by the amount of “free acidity” in the resulting oil. True, olive oils don’t taste acidic, like citrus juice or vinegar. This doesn’t refer to acidic flavor. Instead, it’s a nod to the triglycerides (a trio of fatty acids linked by a glycerol molecule) in the oil. During harsher processing, the link between these fatty acids can break and release a “free acidity” or “free fatty acid.” The highest-quality olive oil types have the lowest levels of free fatty acids. Basically, these oils have been treated with some serious TLC and are most representative of the flavor of the original fruit itself.
According to the International Olive Oil Council, these are the most common types of olive oil you’ll find on the market.
Extra virgin olive oil: Has few flavor “defects” and a free acidity level of less than 0.8 percent. This type of olive oil is vigorously tested for purity and quality. The low amount of processing means this olive oil type retains more polyphenols and antioxidants than olive oils lower on this list.
Virgin olive oil: Has a free acidity level of less than 2 percent, and may have some minor flavor alterations that expert tasters—but not most of the general public—would notice.
Refined olive oil: This oil is treated with heat and chemicals to make it taste more neutral, which also lowers the level of health-boosting antioxidants and polyphenols. It has a free acidity level of less than 0.3 percent. It tends to taste less like olives than the virgin oils.
Olive oil: Sometimes labeled as “pure” or “classic, regular olive oil has a free acidity level of less than 1 percent. It is a blend of 15 to 25 percent virgin olive oil with refined olive oil to eliminate any flavor flaws.
Light olive oil or extra light olive oil: Has a free acidity level of less than 1 percent, and is a mix of 5 to 10 percent virgin olive oil with refined olive oil. Worth noting: These aren’t “lighter” in terms of calories; all olive oils have about 120 calories and 14 grams of fat per tablespoon, the USDA confirms.
Test Kitchen Tip: Don’t be fooled by the color. High-quality olive oils can fall anywhere between a pale yellow to a dark green, depending on the olive type, harvest time, growing region, and climate.
Expert tasters evaluate olive oil type flavor using descriptive terms about the smell and taste. Since we all have different noses and taste buds, these are more subjective than scientific. That said, they’re still interesting to keep in mind to test your tongue and see if you can pick any of them out in your type of olive oil.
The California Olive Oil Council says that possible notes can include:
How to Select, Store, and Use Any Type of Olive Oil
Now that you’ve studied up on the different types of olive oil, let’s dive into a primer of how to shop and feature olive oil on your menu.
How to Select and Store Olive Oil
One of the biggest olive oil mistakes is buying in bulk. Since olive oil has a shelf life and is best used within 2 years of bottling, aim to purchase a bottle size that you anticipate using within a few months of opening, the North American Olive Oil Association recommends. Some bottles list the “harvest date,” which you can tack on 2 years to determine the optimal flavor lifespan. Or look for the “best by” date, which is on most labels, which indicates how long olive oil should last under ideal storage conditions.
Speaking of storage, try to protect all olive oil types from air, light, and heat exposure; all of which can speed up the oxidation process. The result: Rancid oil. Some oxidation naturally occurs over time, which is why our Test Kitchen pros recommend using the oil for 6 months max after opening. When possible, buy olive oil in a dark glass bottle, metal tin with a screw cap, or a bag-in-a-box to limit light vulnerability. Keep olive oil at a distance from the stove. A dark cabinet or pantry is the ideal storage location; not next to the stove. Don’t store olive oil in the refrigerator, as condensation can build up and trigger “off” flavors.
How to Use Different Types of Olive Oil
Wondering what type of olive oil works for cooking? Contrary to popular belief about a low smoke point, you can cook with nearly all olive oil types at moderate temperatures, according to the California Olive Oil Council.
A general best practice: The higher and more “extra” the olive oil type, the better it is to reserve for fresh (uncooked) or low temperature recipes.
The smoke point of extra virgin olive oil, by the way, is between 350° F and 410° F. If you have a really special, pricy, and flavorful extra virgin olive oil, reserve them to use as a finishing oil, whisk into salad dressings (we swear by this 3-2-1-1 vinaigrette), or to use as a dip for bread. Or cook with extra virgin olive oil at temps under 350° F.
Regular olive oil has a slightly higher base smoke point, ranging from 374° F to 405° F. Try olive oil for roasting, sautéing, or pan-frying (our Pan-Fried Garlic Steaks show how this is done), just like you might with canola, corn, peanut, or vegetable oil. Or, since it has a milder, more neutral flavor, try olive oil as the fat in baked goods that call for other oils. For more on this topic, check out our guide to using olive oil for baking.