What Is Olive Oil?

Buying, Cooking, and Recipes

Olive varieties

The Spruce / Peggy Trowbridge Filippone

Olive oil is made by pressing fresh olives to extract the oil. It's a popular cooking oil that is produced in olive-growing regions, most often France, Italy, Spain, Greece, and California. Its flavor is highly prized and used often in Mediterranean and European cuisines. Considered one of the healthier fats, it has also found a place in kitchens around the world, appearing in cold applications like salad dressing and pasta and used for frying, sautéing, and baking.

Fast Facts

  • Varieties: Extra virgin, virgin, fino, light, pure
  • Smoke Point: 375 (extra virgin) to 468 degrees Fahrenheit (extra light)
  • Common Uses: Cold and low-heat cooking

Olive Oil vs. Avocado Oil

Olive and avocado oils are both considered healthy cooking oils with a relatively neutral flavor that's versatile for a range of foods. Most are unrefined and contain a good amount of monounsaturated fats and polyunsaturated fatty acids. The biggest difference is in how to cook with them. Olive oil, in general, has a low smoking point—from 375 to 468 degrees Fahrenheit, depending on the grade—so it's best for no-cook uses and low- to medium-heat cooking. Avocado oil has a high smoke point of 520 degrees Fahrenheit, making it ideal for high-heat cooking like stir-fries.

Varieties

Olive oil comes in various grades and the quality differences within each can be significant. The best olive oil is a blend of oil from a mixture of red-ripe (not green and not fully ripe) olives and a smaller proportion of oil from green olives of a different variety. Cold-pressing—a chemical-free process using only pressure—produces a higher quality of olive oil with a richer flavor and lower acidity. The level of acidity—free oleic acid—is used to grade olive oil.

  • Extra Virgin Olive Oil: This is a cold-pressed, unrefined oil from the first pressing of olives. With only 1 percent acid, it's considered the finest and fruitiest and is the most expensive. It ranges from a crystalline champagne color to greenish-golden to bright green. Generally, the deeper the color, the more intense the olive flavor.​
  • Virgin Olive Oil: Also a first-press oil, this variety retains a nice flavor but has a slightly higher acidity level of between 1 percent and 3 percent.
  • Fino Olive Oil: This is a blend of extra virgin and virgin olive oils.
  • Light Olive Oil: A refined oil, this type is lighter in color (not fat or calories) than virgin varieties but has far less flavor.
  • Pure Olive Oil: Sometimes just labeled "olive oil" or considered "regular" olive oil, this is often a blend of refined and virgin olive oils. It has a very bland, neutral flavor and an acidity around 3 percent.

Olive Oil Uses

Any type of olive oil can be used for most food preparations. However, some are preferred for particular uses. Extra virgin is recommended for cold applications in which you want a full flavor, including drizzling on salads and pasta, making dressings, and using as a dip. Olive oil can also be infused with flavor to create dressings and vinaigrettes. Use a cheaper, lower-grade olive oil—either pure or light—for all-purpose cooking and baking.

How to Cook With Olive Oil

Many recipes will not suggest a specific type of olive oil, though some do and it's best to follow that recommendation. Stocking both extra virgin and pure or light olive oil in the kitchen allows you to choose the perfect oil for the dish. Consider the amount of heat and the oil's impact on the flavor as well as your own personal preference.

When cooking with olive oil, keep in mind the grade's smoke point. Extra-virgin olive oil will smoke at a lower temperature (375 degrees Fahrenheit) than pure or light olive oils (468 degrees Fahrenheit). Heating any oil beyond its smoke point will give the food you're cooking a burnt taste. For this reason, it's best to use pure or light olive oil for medium-heat cooking like baking, frying and sautéing. Reserve extra virgin olive oil for no-heat dishes and very low-heat cooking. Olive oil is not the best choice for deep-fried or stir-fried foods; choose an oil with a higher smoke point instead.

When baking recipes call for olive oil, consider using light or pure olive oil as the lighter flavor may be more desirable. Then again, in savory baked goods, the olive flavor of an extra virgin oil can be quite pleasant.

What Does It Taste Like?

The taste of olive oil will depend on the grade and how it's processed. Unrefined, cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil will be the most flavorful, with a distinct olive flavor and aroma and a light pepper-like finish. The lower-grade, refined olive oils will have almost no flavor.

Olive Oil Substitute

If you don't have olive oil, canola oil is the best substitute for almost any food, whether cooked or raw. Peanut and avocado oils are excellent in high-heat cooking. Use coconut oil for sautéing or opt for sunflower oil for low-heat cooking. With all of these oil substitutes, use the same amount listed for olive oil in the recipe.

Butter is another option. Melted butter can be used in cooking without any adjustments. For baking, use four parts of solid butter for three parts of olive oil.

Olive Oil Recipes

The uses of olive oil are nearly endless. You will find it in recipes for salad dressings, dips, vinaigrettes, pasta, meat and vegetable dishes, baked goods, and simple no-cook foods like cheese and bread appetizers.

Where to Buy Olive Oil

Most grocery stores will offer a selection of olive oils available in glass or plastic bottles; extra virgin, pure, and light are the most common. Olive oil, in general, is more expensive than other cooking oils, but this is dependent on the grade, quality, and brand. Consider paying more for a high-quality extra-virgin olive oil, something you may only find in gourmet and specialty food shops.

When purchasing olive oil, check labels for the percentage of acidity, grade of oil, and country of origin. The level of acidity is a key factor in choosing fine olive oil, along with color, flavor, and aroma. Some bottles also include a date and you want the freshest oil you can find. Since you can't taste-test oil in the store, you might need to try various brands at home until you find a favorite.

Storage

Olive oil is often sold in dark-colored bottles to protect it from light. Heat and light will cause it to go rancid—often smelling like dirt—and ruin the flavor and nutrition value. Store the oil in a dark, cool place (not near the stove) and transfer oil in clear containers to darker ones. When properly stored, it has a shelf life of one year.

Nutrition and Benefits

Olive oil, particularly extra virgin, is considered one of the healthiest cooking oils available. It is an excellent source of monounsaturated fats and has some polyunsaturated fatty acids, both of which are linked to good heart health and balancing cholesterol levels. Olive oil is cholesterol-free and contains no sugar, gluten, carbs, fiber, or protein. It is rich in vitamin E and a good source of vitamin K.