Understanding olive oil seems to be complicated. It’s not a simple matter of reaching for a bottle and using the right amount in your dish. There are different types of olive oil, which are used for distinct purposes. These various olive oil varieties have unique qualities and strengths. How do you tell the difference between olive oils? Which is the best olive oil for cooking? Which olive oil is preferable for dressings?

Here we look at the main olive oil differences, and what makes them stand out. Choose an olive oil with greater confidence with this quick guide. 

What is Olive Oil?

Olive oil, at its simplest definition, is the natural oil from the olive tree fruit. So far, so straightforward. However, you can extract the oil in various ways. And there are different levels of nutrients in different oils, as well as distinct additives that are included in the mix. These contrasting elements are what makes olive oils distinctive. Using colour to differentiate between olive oils is a common mistake. Colour and shade differentials vary between brands and are not a reliable way to tell different oil grades apart. Colour is one factor in what makes olive oils distinct, but it is not the only one. 

Refined and Unrefined Olive Oils

Unrefined olive oil does not have any of its “flaws” or natural components removed. Refined oil does, and this makes it more marketable. But while refined oil is more uniform in colour and texture, it does not contain any of the flavour or aroma of unrefined oil. It also does not have the full complement of antioxidants or anti-inflammatory properties. It lacks the distinctive bitterness and attractive taste of unrefined oil.

Extra Virgin Olive Oil

Extra virgin olive oil, which is unrefined olive oil, is the highest quality oil available. In order to be classed as extra virgin, oil must meet a set of strict criteria. Extra virgin olive oil retains more flavour and more minerals and vitamins. It typically tastes slightly peppery and it is a gold-green shade. You can use extra virgin olive oil for cooking but it has a lower smoke point. Use the most expensive extra virgin oil for cold dressings and dipping, and the lesser quality extra virgin oil for cooking. 

Virgin Olive Oil

Virgin olive oil is one step down from extra virgin olive oil. It is also unrefined, but it does not have to meet such stringent production standards as extra virgin oil. Since no chemicals or heat are used in the extraction process, this oil also retains taste and flavour, as well as nutritional qualities. You probably won’t find virgin olive oil on the shelves, however, as supplies tend to be limited to extra virgin or pure olive oil.

Pure Olive Oil

Pure olive oil is also referred to as simply olive oil. It is usually a blend of refined olive oil and virgin olive oil. It is extracted using chemicals or heat. This process removes some of the natural “flaws” of the oil. It has a milder flavour and is a more neutral oil. Bulk Olive Oil is typically pure olive oil and it is used for all-purpose cooking.