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How to select a high-quality olive oil

Olive oil is one of the most praised ingredients in the Mediterranean diet —and it has been for thousands of years. Historically, it’s been used for everything from religious rituals to medicines to soaps. And today, it’s widely recognized for its distinctive flavors and health benefits, such as providing antioxidants and potentially fighting Alzheimer’s Disease

For these reasons and many more, it’s popular in kitchens across the world. According to research, in 2020, domestic olive oil consumption in the U.S. amounted to approximately 386,000 metric tons. And in 2019, Spain consumed more than 500 tons of olive oil. That’s a lot of oil! 

With the popularity of olive oils, it can be hard to know which type is best. So what's the difference between the varieties? And why do these differences matter? We’ll cover nine different types of olive oil and things to look out for when shopping. Plus, we’ll share easy ways to use olive oil in the kitchen, featuring plant-based Swich recipes.

What is quality olive oil? 

Much like quality wine, quality olive oil is dependent on the varietal, annual crop quality, terroir, and process of how it’s made.

Pouring olive oil

The best olive oils are made by harvesting olives at their peak, crushing them, then pressing the mash. The oil is then separated from the run-off, filtered or not filtered, then bottled, and all done on the estate where the olives are grown. Watch this five-minute video for a look at how olive oil is made from harvesting to extracting:

This artisanal approach produces olive oil of the highest quality with better flavor and more nutritional value. That said, the higher quality often comes with higher price tags. 

Here’s what to look for on labels when shopping for high-quality olive oil:

  • Cold or first-pressed

  • Extra-virgin

  • Estate-bottled (this is the most expensive of olive oils)

How are lower-quality olive oils made?

To get more out of the first-pressed and leftover mash, heat and solvents are used to extract more oil. From here, the oil is separated from the solids by a centrifuge. This refined product becomes a compromised version of the “real deal.”  

These lower-quality oils are often sold with labels using words like:

  • Pure oil

  • Light oil

  • Olive oil

  • Pomace oil

That said, two advantages of these lower-quality versions are that they generally have a higher smoking point and a relatively cheaper price. 

9 different olive oil types: extra virgin to pomace

Cooking pasta with olive oil

  1. First- or Cold-Pressed:

This indicates 100 percent of the oil has been extracted without steam or chemical treatment. Without this label, any percentage of the oil can be extra-virgin mixed with oil that has been treated with high heat to assist extraction.

Best for: sauteing food with a low to medium heat, dressings, or finishing a dish.

  1. Extra-Virgin Olive Oil:

It must indicate first run-off or cold-pressed, which means it’s 100 percent extra-virgin olive oil or EVOO. Without this indicator, it generally means that it’s cut with another lesser quality oil, which is sometimes not even olive oil. EVOO is also approved as such by a board of tasters who examine the oil for both objective and subjective quality factors.

Best for: a flavorful dressing, dipping bread, or drizzling over pasta, vegetables, hummus, or salad.

  1. Estate-bottled:

Like wines, estate-bottled means more artisanal care and authenticity went into the making of the olive oil. It is likely that a single olive varietal was used, and it was grown and processed in relatively small batches.

Best for: dressings, salads, and finishing a plate.

  1. Unfiltered:

Estate-bottled olive oils are usually sold unfiltered to capture all of the oil’s complexity. Olive oil connoisseurs, like wine enthusiasts, generally do not mind a bit of sediment.

Best for: dipping, drizzling on beans or vegetables, and adding oto grain dishes or pasta.

  1. Certified Organic:

This label means the olives and trees themselves are as free of pesticides and herbicides as possible. These oils also tend to be unfiltered.

Best for: adding to organic vegetables, savory dishes, salads, and dips.

  1. Acidity <0.8%:

To be labeled EVOO, olive oil must have an acidity of less than 0.8 percent. Higher acidity levels mean a lesser crop of olives was harvested or the olives were not processed quickly after harvest. This compromises the oil’s flavor and shelf life. If labels do not say EVOO or do not include acidity levels, it generally means they are higher than 0.8 percent.

Best for: higher acidity oils are best for frying, cooking, grilling and baking.

  1. D.O.P.:

Olive oils from Italy which are marked D.O.P. mean they come from a particular region. This “denomination of origin” label is a guarantee that the oil has been produced to meet the standards of the local government.

Best for: like EVOODOP is a lovely choice for dipping bread, or drizzling over pasta, vegetables, hummus, or salad.

  1. Pomace Olive Oil:

Pomace is the oil extracted from the remaining mash from the first pressing of the crushed olives. This oil is 100 percent refined and treated and is usually the cheapest olive oil with little flavor. It is best used for frying.

Best for: cooking, baking, frying, any high-heat dishes.

  1. Pure Olive Oil:

This is an undetermined blend of pomace and extra-virgin olive oil.

Best for: sauteing, frying, or stirring into pasta salads.

Ways to use olive oil —from drizzling to cooking to dipping

1. Drizzle olive oil on salads

Olive oil goes wonderfully with many salads —or you can use it in your dressings, such as this dressing for the Crunchy Mediterranean Salad. We like extra-virgin olive oil best for this purpose because it's the most rich in flavor. 

2. Blend it into dips

Cauliflower Hummus and crackers Swich recipe

Make your hummus or french onion dip extra creamy with a tablespoon or two of extra-virgin olive oil.

3. Pan-frying vegetables

Lightly pan-frying this asparagus dish with olive oil gives it a little extra flavor and an added boost of antioxidants. Regular olive oil, rather than extra-virgin, is better for cooking with heat. 

4. Cooking pasta 

Mushroom Stroganoff with Farfalle Noodles and sun-dried tomato pesto pasta both call for a drizzle of olive oil to complement the dish.

5. Completing dishes

Swich vegan Spanakopita recipe

Olive oil plays a central role in many dishes, ranging from spanakopita to patatas bravas to this mushroom, barley, tempeh and roasted garlic stew.

6. Baked goods

While olive oil is most seen for entrees, salads, and sides, it can also be used for desserts. For example, the pastry cream for our Boston Cream Pie (Cake) can be made with olive oil. 


Check out more chef-curated recipes from Swich like these 5 plant-based side dishes and vegetable stock recipes.

 

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