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Which Olive Oil to Choose

There are so many different brands and varieties of olive oil on the store shelves.  Which one should I choose?


There are three grades of olive oil generally available in North America -- Extra-Virgin olive oil, Virgin olive oil, and just plain Olive Oil, with no other description.  Each is distinguished by its processing technique, acidity and flavor.

Extra-Virgin olive oil is cold-pressed, meaning it is extracted by strictly mechanical means without the use of heat or solvents, and has an acidity of less than 1 percent.  It is made from the first pressing of olives that have been crushed either using a stone wheel or a hammermill.  The olives are ground to a fine paste which is pressed to extract a liquid which contains both olive oil and water.  The oil is typically centrifuged to separate it from the water and then filtered to remove any other impurities.

Virgin olive oil is made by the same extraction process, using first pressing, but has an acid level of less than 2 percent.

Olive Oil may be processes by other means, using heat and solvents, or it may be processed from oils that contain too much acid content and require further refining.  Often, plain Olive Oil is blended with some Virgin olive oil to give it added flavor.

Extra-Virgin and Virgin olive oils may range from a soft golden-yellow color through to bright green.  Flavors may be soft and fruity to strong and herbaceous.  Typically the more green the color, the more intense the flavor.

So-called "Lite" olive oil is usually Virgin oil which has been heavily filtered.  The resulting oil is lighter in fragrance and color, but contains the same number of calories as any other olive oil, per unit volume.  Some writers suggest that the use of the term 'lite' is deliberate, intended to trade on the diet craze.

So then, which oil to choose?  For cooking, where the flavor of the oil is not as important, you should choose a relatively inexpensive oil.  A plain Olive Oil will do well.  Lite olive oil can also be used for this purpose, but at a higher price and with no real benefit.

For use in salad dressing, and other places where the taste of the oil is more important, use an Extra-Virgin or Virgin olive oil that suits your palate.  Buy the smallest quantities of several oils and taste them to see which one you like.  To sample olive oil, either dip some fresh bread in the oil and eat it, or sip it straight from a spoon.  Fresh, fruity olive oil will leave a peppery flavor at the back of your throat, which I like but may not suit everyone.  Try several and decide which you like.

Personally, I have four different oils that I use for dressings, dips, bruschetta, and the like.  Each tastes slightly different and works well for some purposes but not others.  For example, I wouldn't use the same oil which I put on Caprese Salad to make Caesar Salad dressing, because it is too fruity and would get in the way of the other flavors in the dressing.  Caprese Salad is a simple salad of fresh sliced tomatoes, mozzarella cheese (the real stuff, not the mass-produced rubber that sometimes sells for mozzarella) and fresh basil, dressed with a light drizzle of good olive oil and some salt and pepper.  For that, a fruity, peppery olive oil is perfect.

My personal favorites include Horia Extra-Virgin olive oil from Greece, which I get at the Bulk Cheese Warehouse in Saskatoon; Umberto's Villa Delia Extra-Virgina olive oil from Italy, which I buy at Il Giardino in Vancouver, Canada; the bulk Extra-Virgin olive oil available at Mercato Foods in Calgary; and Sindyanna Extra Virgin olive oil from Israel, which I get from Ten Thousand Villages, which is operated by the Mennonite Central Committee.

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