8 things you need to know about extra virgin olive oil

7 things you need to know about extra virgin olive oil

by Great British Chefs 11 January 2021

It forms the basis of most Mediterranean dishes and tastes delicious – but there’s so much more to extra virgin olive oil than you might think. From spotting a quality bottle to cooking with it, learn more about the liquid gold that plays a constant role in our daily meals.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

Great British Chefs is a team of passionate food lovers dedicated to bringing you the latest food stories, news and reviews.

It’s a rare thing to find a kitchen in the UK without a bottle of olive oil to hand. Our love for Mediterranean cooking has turned it into a staple in our diets, and many of our favourite recipes start by adding a glug of it into a pan. But while we know there are countless varieties of olive oil on offer, sold at all sorts of different price points, many of us still treat it as a commodity, the same way we do with vegetable or sunflower oil. The reality is that olive oil – extra virgin olive oil in particular – is an incredible product that can vary greatly in taste and quality. Here’s a crash course on why extra virgin olive oil deserves a little more attention and respect.

1. The differences between olive oil and extra virgin olive oil

Like many single-ingredient products, all grades of olive oil contain just one ingredient that comes from a single source. But there is a difference between the grades. Extra virgin is free from sensorial defects and is simply pressed (without heat) to extract the oil. Regular olive oil, on the other hand, is mostly made up of refined olive oil, which has a more neutral flavour.

2. How to tell a good extra virgin olive oil from a bad one

If an extra virgin olive oil is stored in a clear plastic bottle on the shop shelf, the flavour will have degraded before you even open it. That’s because UV rays from light sources directly impair the quality of olive oil – clear bottles allow sunlight in, and plastic can absorb UV rays too, so steer clear. That's why it's important for extra virgin olive oils to be stored in dark bottles or tins to completely protect them.

3. The nutritional benefits of extra virgin olive oil

Extra virgin olive oil doesn’t just taste nice – it’s good for you too. Roughly 75% of it consists of monounsaturated fatty acids, which are fantastic for cardiovascular health, and it’s packed with polyphenols and vitamin E, which contain antioxidants that benefit the body in all sorts of ways (source: NCBI). This makes it one of the healthiest oils you can use in your cooking, be it frying or drizzling.

4. How to store extra virgin olive oil once it’s opened

We often treat cooking oils as commodities which last indefinitely, but to get the most out of good extra virgin olive oil, it needs to be stored correctly. Keep it away from light in a dark bottle or container and ensure it’s airtight, as air can oxidise the oil which degrades the flavour. Finally, the ideal temperature to keep olive oil at is 20°C.

5. Frying with extra virgin olive oil is a good thing

It’s a myth that you should only use extra virgin olive oil for dressing or finishing dishes – it’s just as good to cook with, too. In fact, it’s ever better than vegetable oils as it contains more flavour and health benefits – take a look at our feature where we delve into this topic of debate more thoroughly.

6. Blended extra virgin olive oils are just as good as single origin

Just like anything that’s grown, there are countless factors which can change the final result. The weather and insects that can pass on diseases to olive trees are the toughest to deal with, and this can result in shortages from producers who focus on producing olive oils from single olive groves or regions. Much like whisky, a lot of top-quality olive oils are actually made by blending various olive profiles together to create a product that's perfectly tailored to the tastes of consumers.

7. How to taste extra virgin olive oil

Extra virgin olive oil is made from all sorts of olive varieties in all sorts of climates and environments – all of which will change the final flavour and colour of the oil. In general, there are three positive attributes or characteristics to look out for – fruity, bitter and spicy. Whether you prefer particularly fruity olive oils or like the bite of the spicier varieties is down to personal taste, but any good olive oil should contain all three flavours.

To taste extra virgin olive oil like a professional you have to treat it a little bit like wine – swirl it in a glass to unlock the aromas, give it a good sniff, then ‘slurp’ a little into your mouth and roll it around your tongue to try and pick out the different flavours. If you taste a few different olive oils side by side like this, you’ll quickly realise just how different each one can taste.