A variety of olive oil bottles on the shelves of a Greek supermarket

What kind of olive oil is it? That depends. In the USA, it is often described as extra virgin olive oil, olive oil, or light-tasting olive oil. On the other hand, the International Olive Council (IOC) discusses more different designations. Like many other organizations, the IOC focuses on the difference between virgin olive oils and non-virgin olive oils.

To make virgin olive oil, machines extract oil from the olives without adding anything more than water during the process. More specifically, as American olive oil expert Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne writes in Olive Oil: A Field Guide, virgin olive oil “is natural olive oil, made solely from olive fruit, mechanically extracted under conditions (particularly temperatures) that do not lead to changes in the oil and that has not undergone treatment other than washing, separation (decantation and/or centrifugation) and filtration.” 

Part of what defines an olive oil’s type is its free acidity. For olive oil, we discuss “free acidity” or “free fatty acids” (FFA), not simply “acidity,” as Devarenne told me, because we are not referring to the sort of acidity we find in a lemon or vinegar. When free acidity goes up, good flavor and quality go down, because the olives were fermenting, rotting, or damaged before their oil was extracted. But that’s not all there is to it; in addition to many other chemical factors, an olive oil’s flavor is crucial to its designation. All standards designate extra virgin olive oil as the highest grade, with its very low free acidity (no more than 0.8%), some fruitiness, and a lack of flavor defects.

Virgin olive oil that doesn’t make the cut for extra virgin may have some mild flavor defects and a higher free acidity (up to 2%), while the IOC’s category of “ordinary virgin” can have up to 3.3% free acidity. What the IOC considers “virgin olive oil not fit for consumption as it is” and designates “lampante virgin olive oil” has a higher free acidity and/or other flavor defects. Lampante virgin olive oil requires refining before it can be eaten.

What is often called “olive oil” and “light olive oil” or “light tasting olive oil” in the US is a blend of extra virgin or virgin olive oil with a much larger percentage of refined olive oil. Devarenne explains that refining uses high temperatures and a great deal of manipulation to produce an odorless, colorless, flavorless, mostly monounsaturated fat from a virgin olive oil with serious flavor defects and high free acidity. During refining, volatile compounds and the very healthy polyphenols in virgin olive oils are lost.

So, Devarenne concludes, “when choosing olive oil for its health benefits, using virgin olive oil instead of refined makes sense because of the so-called ‘minor’ components.” The virgin products have the polyphenols, tocepherols, etc., that research is indicating are “a big part of what olive oil does for you” health-wise. Are you looking for “really good flavor and the highest level of health” benefits? Use extra virgin olive oil—it’s the best. Prefer a cost conscious approach? Choose a virgin grade for cooking, and extra virgin for raw uses.

How should you use it? As part of her educational outreach efforts, Devarenne does cooking demonstrations. She doesn’t aim for the complexity of an in-depth cooking program, but for quick “healthy food. You can make it incredibly delicious in 30 minutes.” She knows everybody is busy and suggests that when “you want to make something you can whip together, your secret weapon is olive oil.”

She shows how to whip up 5 vegetable dishes in 45 minutes using great olive oils, salt, pepper, red pepper flakes, lemons, garlic, vinegar, and onions. “Give me the Sunday paper, and with those ingredients, I can make it taste good.” Try it yourself with the recipes she shared, below—although we’re missing the one featuring a newspaper.

Two recipes from Olive Oil: A Field Guide

By Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne of the Extra Virgin Alliance

Basic Vinaigrette

  • 1/4 cup good extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 1/2 tablespoons wine vinegar or lemon juice
  • 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
  • 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon fresh ground pepper
  • 1 small clove garlic, pressed or pulverized, or 1 teaspoon finely minced shallot or scallion

In a small bowl or jar, combine vinegar or lemon juice and salt. Stir or shake until salt is dissolved. Add the olive oil, optional garlic or shallot, and pepper. Whisk vigorously if using a bowl, or cover and shake the jar until ingredients are well blended. Test by dipping a lettuce leaf, correct seasonings and vinegar. Pour on salad, toss and serve.

Greens with Olive Oil and Garlic

This basic recipe works with almost anything in the edible leafy greens category. Onions, scallions, shallots and other members of the onion family are also good instead of garlic, or in addition.

  • 1 large bunch kale or other leafy greens (chard, turnip greens, collards, bok choy, yu choy, etc.)
  • 1/4 cup extra virgin or virgin olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic (or to taste)
  • Red pepper flakes to taste (optional)
  • Sea salt
  • Fresh ground pepper

Wash greens well, and drain in a colander. It’s OK if they’re wet. Strip leaves off the toughest stems and cut into 1/2 to 3/4-inch ribbons, and chop tender or small stems into 1/4-inch chunks. Peel and finely mince the garlic.

In a sauté pan or pot large enough to hold all of the greens, heat the olive oil over medium heat briefly. Add the chopped greens all at once. Once all the greens are in the pot, cover with a tight fitting lid and allow to cook until you notice steam coming out from the edges of the lid (5 to 10 minutes).

Once you notice steam, uncover and see if the greens have wilted. If not, continue cooking with the lid on for a few minutes until well wilted. If they are not wilting, add a few tablespoons of water to help produce steam, and continue cooking covered (collards will need a longer covered cooking time). Once the greens are wilted, uncover and add the garlic and red pepper flakes if using. Continue to cook uncovered, stirring occasionally, until the greens are tender and the garlic is cooked through. Adjust the heat at this point to prevent burning the greens or the garlic.

Season to taste with salt and fresh ground pepper. Serves 4 to 6 as a side dish. Toss greens cooked this way with penne pasta, adjust the seasoning, finish with a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil and grated Parmesan or pecorino, and you have a meal!

Many thanks to Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne of the Extra Virgin Alliance for speaking with me, for granting permission to republish these recipes from her book, and for sharing the photo of her doing a cooking demonstration at a California state fair. Devarenne is a consultant and educator at CalAthena who also writes about and judges olive oils, serves on the advisory board of the UC Davis Olive Center, and volunteers with the non-profit Extra Virgin Alliance, which she founded along with Paul Miller.

For more about the value of extra virgin olive oil, see Devarenne's article Why Is Extra Virgin Olive Oil So Expensive?

The International Olive Council (IOC) is “the world’s only international intergovernmental organisation in the field of olive oil and table olives … set up in Madrid, Spain, in 1959, under the auspices of the United Nations,” according to their website. See more on their definitions here.