Need to know
- Olive oil is a versatile kitchen staple which has many uses, including for baking, beauty and more,
- To be labelled 'extra virgin', olive oil also has to meet certain quality standards, such as being low in acidity and free from taste defects, whereas regular olive oil doesn't
- We put 25 extra virgin olive oils to the test to see if they meet international standards, and find out which oils taste best.
If you come from a Mediterranean background, there's a good chance you don't mess around buying small bottles of olive oil. It's four-litre drums of the stuff or bust. If there's no olive oil in the house, the world simply stops turning. This golden-hued extraction is so imperative to daily life, from cooking to drizzling and even moisturising, that panic sets in the moment the last drops soak into your ciabatta.
Still, no matter your ancestry, chances are you use olive oil every day. We know it's a healthy oil and we know it's delicious, especially when iridescent-green and extra-virgin, but how much do you really know about that pressed elixir in your pantry? Here, we dive into the bottle (or drum, as the case may be) to reveal the depth of olive oil's goodness.
Fruity, punchy and vibrant in colour, extra-virgin olive oil is a silky, luscious product with a noticeably superior taste.
Oils ain't oils
Not all olive oils are equal. In fact, some are decidedly unequal. Olive oil is graded according to the International Olive Oil Council (IOOC) and takes into account method of production, acidity and flavour. As a general rule of thumb, 'extra-virgin olive oil' (EVOO) is the highest quality. Below that, grades descend to 'virgin' and then simply to 'olive oil', sometimes called 'pure olive oil' or 'refined oil'.
Olive oil is essentially such a poor grade of oil it must be refined by processing and chemicals, and is then blended with extra-virgin olive oil to make it fit to consume. Often this is used in products labelled 'packed in olive oil', such as tinned fish.
Extra-virgin is the best
OK, so what makes extra-virgin so good? Fruity, punchy and vibrant in colour, extra-virgin olive oil is a silky, luscious product with a noticeably superior taste. The IOOC says it must contain no more than 0.8 per cent acidity and be unhampered by fruit damage, deterioration by age, or refining, among other things.
"To be labelled 'extra virgin', olive oil also has to meet certain quality standards, such as being low in acidity and free from taste defects, whereas regular olive oil doesn't," explains CHOICE food and nutrition expert Rachel Clemons.
Extra-virgin olive oil is best enjoyed uncooked to truly appreciate its flavour but you can also cook with it.
You should pay the extra for EVOO
Rachel says it's worth paying more for extra-virgin olive oil compared to just olive oil as EVOO is extracted from olives without using chemicals or excessive heat.
"This ensures that it retains its nutritional value, such as being high in antioxidants," she says.
However, price isn't the only indicator when it comes to buying the best oil.
"When it comes to choosing between different EVOO products, it's more about choosing the freshest, rather than paying more – in order to get the best quality," explains Rachel, so be sure to check the harvest date on the bottle.
European isn't necessarily better
In fact, Australian EVOO is by-and-large of an exceedingly high standard with beautiful, quality oils extracted using best-practice processing techniques. While we still only produce around one per cent of the world's olive oil, what we do make is good stuff and, better still, it's made locally so it's more likely to be fresher and come without the food miles.
Furthermore, European olive oil labelled as extra-virgin isn't necessarily what it claims to be. Back in 2010, about half of the 28 olive oils CHOICE tested that year, most of which were from Europe, didn't meet international standards for extra-virgin.
While transparency is improving, there's still much work to be done in regard to labelling, so it's a safer bet to go with Australian. See our latest olive oil reviews to find out which ones we rate the best.
Australian EVOO is by-and-large of an exceedingly high standard with beautiful, quality oils extracted using best-practice processing techniques
There are shades of olive
You may have noticed 'light' and 'medium' olive oils on the supermarket shelf. While the waters are a little murky when it comes to international standards of labelling, generally these oils are refined and blended with a little extra-virgin olive oil.
However, typically, Australian labels that refer to lighter-flavoured oils are still extra-virgin but achieve a lighter taste by less dominantly flavoured varieties of olives being blended together.
Just be sure to check the labelling so you know what you're buying as some 'light' oils are made with up to 90 per cent refined oil.
You can use olive oil in your baking, to give delicious mild flavour and moistness to cakes, breads and muffins.
You have to store it right and tight
It's always best to store your olive oil in a dark, cool cupboard away from heat and try to consume it within 4–6 weeks.
"Extra-virgin olive oil quality starts to deteriorate from the moment it's pressed from the olives. Exposure to light, oxygen and particularly heat can speed up degradation," explains Rachel.
That's why it's good practice to keep your olive oil in a tightly stoppered bottle to prevent oxygen spoiling it quicker. She also suggests that when purchasing your olive oil, check it hasn't been kept on a shelf in the sun or next to a heat source, and choose a product sold in a coloured bottle with the most-recent harvest date.
Yes, you can fry with it
To fry or not to fry with olive oil is a slippery issue of contention. Although it has a lower smoking point than many edible oils, it's still very stable and searing or shallow-frying with EVOO will give you a golden, deeply flavoured result. You can also deep-fry with EVOO, however, it's not a cost-effective oil for such quantities. You'd be better off deep-frying with vegetable or grapeseed oil.
And you can bake with it
Extra-virgin olive oil is delicious drizzled over pretty much everything, but did you know you can also use olive oil to bake cakes. There are some great recipes that substitute butter for olive oil, which is particularly excellent for the vegan or lactose intolerant among us.
As a general guide when switching butter out for olive oil, Rachel says to use 3 parts olive oil for every 4 parts of butter in the recipe (for example, rather than 1 cup of butter, use 3/4 cups of olive oil).
If you intend to use your olive oil for baking, it's a good idea to choose an extra-virgin olive oil with a lighter flavour, otherwise a very fruity oil may overwhelm the taste.
It's really quite good for you
Extra-virgin olive oil is known for being a good fat. That's because it's largely made up of monounsaturated oleic acid, which has been found to reduce inflammation. It's also full of vitamins E and K, and antioxidants. Studies have shown that extra-virgin olive oil, which features heavily in the Mediterranean diet, is protective against heart disease. It does need to be extra-virgin, though. You won't find the same nutritional punch in a refined oil.
It's a beauty staple
The usefulness of a good-quality olive oil extends beyond the kitchen. It has long been used in beauty routines as a moisturiser, cleanser and to restore dry hair. Try using a few drops as a lip balm, massage it into a dry scalp (this is particularly good for helping to remove cradle cap on babies), and remove eye make-up with a few droplets on a cotton pad. It's also a great addition to DIY facials and manicures, and can be used as a shaving cream.
It's a household helper
Bothered by a squeaky door? Stuck zip? Gum in hair? The cat's hair balls? Don't worry, whip out your trusty bottle of olive oil to quieten creaky hardware, loosen stubborn zips, remove sticky substances, and add ¼ of a teaspoon to your cat's food to help prevent hair balls.
Stock images: Getty, unless otherwise stated.