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Recipes are always calling for extra virgin olive oil because it’s “the best,” but what does that even mean? If I replace it with a cheaper olive oil, will I ruin my food?
Technically and truthfully extra virgin olive oil is “the best,” but, depending on what exactly you’re using olive oil for, it’s not always the best option. You can’t think of it the same way think about other cooking oils, like vegetable or canola. Think of it in the same way you think about wine: you want to use an affordable bottle if you’re cooking, but you never want to cook with a wine you wouldn’t also want to drink. If you’re looking for something to dip a warm, crusty piece of bread into, spring for the expensive stuff. If you’re making a vinaigrette or pasta, supermarket extra-virgin will do. For day-to-day cooking, you can get away with using a cheaper oil, but not too cheap. Just because you can buy wine for less than $2 doesn’t mean you should, and that same attitude of self-preservation should guide you when buying olive oil.
Another similarity to wine: people have been making olive oil for at least 4,000 years, which is why the olive oil universe is vast and complex, and can be overwhelming to the average person who did not think buying oil would require research. In the times of the Greeks and Romans, oil was extracted by pressing whole olives between heavy stones, and for the most part, that method worked for everyone for 3,900 years. About 90% of an olive’s oil would be extracted from the first pressing and was labeled virgin; the oil was then graded for quality, with the best of the lot labeled extra virgin (or premium extra virgin), and lesser-quality oils labeled as virgin, fine virgin, or semifine virgin. If oil was processed with chemicals or heated above 80 degrees it could no longer be considered virgin. If you’ve ever seen a bottle of extra virgin olive oil with the terms “cold pressed,” “first pressed,” or “first cold pressed” on the bottle, it doesn’t mean they’re extra special, because those terms are true for literally all virgin olive oils.
There are still small manufacturers that make their olive oil the traditional way, but for the most part, since the mid-20th century, olive oil production is not done by pressing, but by crushing. First, olives are loaded into machinery where steel rollers grind them into a paste. Next, water is slowly added to the paste, causing the oil molecules to separate from the olive pulp and clump together. This paste is put into a centrifuge to separate the oil and water from the pulp, after which the water is then removed, and the oil is graded.
Now here’s where the shenanigans of the industrial food system begin: though it isn’t pressed in the traditional sense, the oil is still allowed to be classified as virgin, and as long as it doesn’t get warmer than 80 degrees while being processed, it can still be considered “cold pressed.” If the oil has an acidity level of less than 0.8% it’s allowed to be classified as extra virgin olive oil; the oil that doesn’t meet extra-virgin standards is refined to remove any impurities, which also removes much of the characteristic olive flavor. Sometimes a small amount of extra-virgin is blended back in to impart a little bit of flavor and sold as regular or classic olive oils, but while you may be saving a few bucks by buying them, you’re sacrificing nearly everything that makes olive oil worth using in the first place. This is why extra virgin is “the best,” and the only one you should buy if you’re using olive oil for anything beyond greasing a pan.
Even though we’ve already left virgin territory, we’re still not at the bottom of the olive barrel. You may have seen something called olive pomace oil, which is shockingly cheap and might seem like a great value. As always, you’re getting what you pay for: after olives have been processed and most of their oils have been extracted, the leftover pulp is treated with chemicals to extract even more oil, which, as you can imagine, is not good. Another thing to steer clear of when shopping: bottles labeled as light olive oil or olive oil blend, which are made by mixing a small percentage of non-virgin olive oil with even cheaper neutral-tasting oils. There are no redeeming qualities to these oils, which are merely bottles of chicanery and lies. If you simply need an oil for cooking, a gallon of vegetable oil will do you just fine. If you’re looking for flavor, it’s EVOO or GTFO.