Olive Oil 101: What You Need to Know

Despite being a common kitchen staple, there is a lot to know about extra virgin olive oil! The process of growing olives and milling them into oil has developed over many years, and has been adapted to a number of growing regions. Here is some of the basic, need-to-know information about extra virgin olive oil, addressing some of your most frequently asked questions!

A person’s hand reaching out to grab a tree branch that’s filled with olives.

Grades of Olive Oil

The different grades of olive oil are potentially confusing, but really are crucial to understand. They refer to how the oil was made, as well as its quality.

EXTRA VIRGIN

Simply put, extra virgin olive oil is the fresh juice of olives. It should smell and taste good! Extra virgin olive oil is produced by mechanically pressing the olives, without the use of chemicals, solvents, or excessive heat. Extra virgin olive oil must not have any sensory flaws, and must meet rigid chemical standards. We follow those set by the Olive Oil Commission of California (OOCC). At California Olive Ranch, our extra virgin olive oils are certified extra virgin by Applied Sensory and the California Olive Oil Council (COOC).

FIRST COLD PRESSED

First cold press is not actually a grade of olive oil, but refers to how extra virgin olive oil is made. In fact, in order to be extra virgin, the oil is required to not have been subject to any excessive heat during milling. Thus, the term first cold press is synonymous with extra virgin, and so if the olive oil is your hand is certified extra virgin, you can infer that is has been first cold pressed.

VIRGIN

Virgin olive oil is produced using the same method as extra virgin olive oil, without chemical solvents or excessive heat. What causes an oil to be graded as virgin instead of extra virgin is almost always due to low-quality fruit. The olives, before being milled, were likely over-ripe, or had begun to ferment. This will cause sensory defects, noticeable in the flavor and/or fragrance of the oil. Virgin olive oil also meets different chemical thresholds; primarily that the free fatty acids are between 0.5–1.8%, also a result of the lower-quality olives.

Crude Olive Oil or Lampante

Crude olive oil also shares the same production method as virgin and extra virgin olive oil. But, crude oil will have more significant sensory defects in the flavor of the oil than virgin olive oil. In California, an oil with a score over 2.5 on the sensory standard of defects found will be graded as crude. These oils have such an off flavor that they are inedible. Originally, this grade of oil was only fit to use in lamps! Rated as unfit for human consumption, crude oil is most often sent to refineries to be processed into refined olive oil.

POMACE OLIVE OIL

Pomace is the solid waste, or olive pulp, left over after the oil is extracted in the olive oil production process. Pomace oil is made by sending this byproduct back through the milling process, aided by mixing in solvents and applying heat to extract additional oil from the pomace. Pomace oil regulations mandate that refining must be done to make the oil edible, so it will be free of defective flavors, free radicals, and chemical residues from the milling extraction process. While edible, at this point of processing, pomace oil becomes a colorless, odorless, refined oil of minimal health benefits.

REFINED OLIVE OIL

Olive oils that do not meet the standards for extra virgin or virgin will often undergo additional processing to remove the chemical and sensory flaws that make it unfit for sale. High temperatures or chemicals are used to make the oil odorless, colorless, and tasteless. The refining process removes most of the health benefits of olive oil – the phenols, a type of antioxidant, can’t withstand this level of refinement. What remains is an oil with very limited health benefits from a small amount of remaining oleic acid. While it is often said that it’s best to use refined oils when cooking at high temperatures, extra virgin olive oil is suitable for cooking at high temperatures, since it is effectively free from impurities. Next time, reach for extra virgin instead!

LIGHT OLIVE OIL

Light is a confusing marketing term, banned for use on any oil produced in California, according the OOCC standards. While claiming to be light in flavor and color, this oil is actually just refined olive oil, stripped of odor, color and taste. Don’t be fooled into thinking this oil contains fewer calories or less fat – it isn’t! Light olive oil is in fact devoid of the main health benefits associated with olive oil.

 A bottle of California Olive Ranch EVOO sitting next to a bag that’s filled with many different kinds of healthy vegetables.

How to Choose an Extra Virgin Olive Oil

As anyone who’s shopped at a grocery store for olive oil knows, there are many, many options on the shelf. Without an understanding of what to look for, it can be an overwhelming decision! Here are some of the most crucial elements to look out for:

Dark Glass and Secure Top

Notice that our olive oil is always bottled in dark glass? This dark color will help protect your oil from light, and thus prolong the life of the oil. Always remember to store your oil away from light and heat, and use it up quickly once you open it. Avoid any olive oil bottles that use cork tops – they allow the oil to breathe and can begin to oxidize it before you even buy it. We don’t recommend using olive oil pourers or transferring your oil to decorative bottles; both cause oxidation.

Certified Extra Virgin

In order to be deemed extra virgin, olive oil must undergo both chemical and sensory analysis. Once it has passed it’s eligible for a seal of certification. All of our extra virgin olive oils are certified extra virgin, carrying the seals of Applied Sensory and California Olive Oil Council (COOC). For all California Olive Ranch oils, both extra virgin olive oil produced in California and sourced from Argentina, Chile and Portugal, we choose to certify our oils according to the standards set by the Olive Oil Commission of California, one of the strictest in the industry.

Ingredients

Extra virgin olive oil is essentially olive juice – extracted from the flesh of the fruit. Infused oils aside, the ingredients should be extra virgin olive oil and nothing else.

Harvest Date

This date indicates when the olive oil was harvested and milled. Our general recommendation is to look for the most recent years’ harvest date. Olives are harvested once a year, in autumn. This lands between October and December in the Northern Hemisphere and between April and June in the Southern Hemisphere. The difference in timing is of course due to the difference in seasons between the two hemispheres. Harvest occurs during the autumn, which arrives in opposite times of year in opposite hemispheres.Throughout the year the harvest date you see on your bottle will fluctuate, depending on the hemisphere where the olive oil was harvested, the racking process, and the speed to which your local store sells through its olive oil supply.

A bottle of California Olive Ranch cooking oil on a countertop alongside fancy salt and pepper shakers.

Cooking with Extra Virgin Olive Oil

We still frequently get the age old question: Can you cook with extra virgin olive oil? Extra virgin olive oil is one of the best oils to cook with. Use it for frying, sautéing, poaching, finishing, and baking! Extra virgin olive oil holds up well under high temperatures, and brings a uniquely nuanced flavor profile to your dish. We encourage you to experiment and find out for yourself how olive oil can help enhance your next recipe!

Baking with Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Baking with extra virgin olive oil is a sure way to add complexity and a wonderful moisture to baked goods. Using olive oil instead of butter is also a great way to reduce the amount of saturated fat in of your favorite treats. Baking with extra virgin olive oil is easy with our conversion chart, found here. We recommend our Mild & Buttery extra virgin olive oil for baked goods, and our Arbosana is also a lovely choice.

Frying with Extra Virgin Olive Oil

A long-standing myth about olive oil is that it has a too-low a smoke point to stand up to the high heat required for frying. A general rule of thumb: the higher the quality and the fresher an oil is, the higher the smoke point will be. And extra virgin olive oil is some of the freshest and highest-quality oil available! All those antioxidants help it hold its form at higher temperatures. Our high-quality extra virgin olive oil has a smoke point upwards of 425ºF, well above the ideal frying temperature of around 350ºF. Lower quality olive oils such as virgin or crude, on the other hand, have a high free fatty acid content and will smoke at a lower temperature.


For more Olive Oil 101, head to our website, which is full of information about olive oil, as well as delicious recipes to inspire you to get cooking.