Grocery stores shelves are full of olive oil choices, but their labels don't always give you the information you need to choose wisely. Before you buy an olive oil for cooking, think about the dishes you make most often. If you tend to favor high-temperature methods such as searing and sautéing, a light olive oil is a good choice. If you prefer dipping crusty bread in a warmed infusion of olive oil and herbs, opt for the best extra-virgin olive oil you can afford.
Types of Olive Oil
Most olive oils you find in the grocery store will fall into two basic categories: extra-virgin or light/refined.
Extra-virgin olive oil comes from the first press of the olives and is extracted using purely mechanical processes. In order to be deemed "extra-virgin," the oil must be extracted via the cold press method and meet specific quality standards.
Light olive oil does not refer to lower fat or calorie content, but rather to the color and flavor of the oil. It may be made from first press oil or a lower-grade oil that has been refined to remove impurities. The refining process also removes some of the flavor compounds from the oil. Refined or light olive oil is usually blended with extra-virgin olive oil to replace some of the color and flavor.
Store olive oil in a cool dark place away from heat and light to lengthen its shelf life. Heat and light speeds spoilage.
Choosing Olive Oil for Cooking
There is no one right olive oil for all dishes. The best oil to use depends on the recipe.
Olive oil has a relatively low smoke point compared to other oils. This doesn't mean you should never use it to cook; just choose carefully and pay attention.
Light olive oil has a smoke point of 465 degrees Fahrenheit -- hot enough for most tasks in the kitchen. Use it to sear a steak or stir-fry some vegetables.
Extra-virgin olive oil has a much lower smoke point of 325 to 375 degrees F. It is better suited to cold dishes, such as vinaigrette, or applications in which it will be gently warmed and infused with other flavors such as garlic or herbs.
Decide what capacity you want olive oil to play in your dish. Should it stay in the background as a relatively neutral lubricant or play a starring role? Choose the light variety for subtlety and extra-virgin for prominence.
Light or refined olive oils are usually significantly less expensive than extra-virgin varieties. Some cooks keep both on hand and use the less expensive light oil for everyday sautéing, saving the pricier extra virgin olive oil for dishes where it will really shine.
Avoid the temptation to save money by buying a gallon jug of extra virgin olive oil. Unless you'll use that much oil in 6 months to a year, you're better off buying a smaller bottle that won't go rancid before you finish it.