Olive Oil Primer: How to Buy, Use and Store and Some Precautions

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How to Buy and Use Olive Oil

Putting together the post on monounsaturated fats for you all really underlined the vast wealth of information (and confusion) about olive oil. It’s a Super Food for a reason! I realized I needed a separate post to help you out, because you can really improve your health by including olive oil in your diet – correctly – but you can also create damaging free radicals and end up harming your body if you do a few key things incorrectly. (top photo source) Read on to unravel the tangled web of EVOO, dear readers! UPDATE: New posts on the issue:

What do all the Olive Oil Labels Mean?

  • Extra Virgin:  first press, should be unrefined. All the nutrients are intact, the flavor is “delicate” (according to World’s Healthiest Foods), and it is as natural as you’re going to get it.
  • Virgin:  also from the first press, but more acidic, fewer health benefits and stronger taste.
  • Virgin“: as a term, it means that the oil came out of the olive without chemical treatment.
  • Refined“:  the opposite of virgin, above. Chemicals are added to neutralize strong tastes and fatty acids. Refined oils will last longer and withstand heat, but their health benefits are drastically reduced.
  • Pure“:  a marketing term. Simply means a mix of refined oil and virgin oils. Don’t bother with this one!
  • Olive oil“:  another marketing term. Vague terms mean vague inside the bottle. Don’t bother.
  • Light olive oil“:  Light = refined to lessen the strong flavor. Read:  fewer health benefits, more oxidation. It may sound like this is a reduced fat/calorie oil, but it absolutely is not.
  • Don’t be tricked by marketing techniques that sound so good to the ears: “100% Pure Olive Oil” is usually the lowest quality, refined oil you can find. !!
  • Cold-Pressed:  I am shocked by my research here. I had done research into the olive oil issue a few years back and came to the conclusion that “first cold-pressed” extra virgin olive oil was the best, the only way to go. Today I read three sources that dispel my previous research with the claim that “first cold press” is also a marketing term (drat!) and that it has little to no meaning in EVOO. Using heat to press olive oil would render the taste and acidity too low to obtain the label EVOO, so no one would do it. It is basically an archaic term from a hundred years ago when they actually used to press oil out of olives, then heat what was left and press it again for a poor-man’s olive oil. I learned something new this week to be sure! (Sources:  Wiki, Olive Oil Source, Directory M articles)

The Bottom Line

For heaven’s sakes. That’s a ridiculous list of terms. No wonder no one can go shopping with a simple grocery list anymore; you need Wikipedia with you just to figure out what to buy!

What to buy:

Extra Virgin olive oil is the way to go, although it may cost a bit more than the alternatives. You’re getting what you pay for in nutrition and health benefits. One caveat:  if you’re going to cook a lot with your EVOO, you might consider another option…

The Heat Conundrum

Consider heat for a moment:  It cooks food, kills bacteria, melts plastics, can burn skin, etc etc. Heat is a strong source of energy. It isn’t a huge leap of logic to realize that processing foods with heat will most certainly affect them more than without heat. In the case of oils, it can denature them (damage their nutrients, like Vitamin E in olive oil), reducing some of their health benefits (like polyphenols in olive oil), and, most importantly, begin the process of rancidity. That’s why you don’t want to buy refined oils, even if they’ll last longer and taste less intense. A rancid oil is not a healthy oil, and you cannot always tell by the smell if an oil has been damaged enough to become rancid. Heat can create “free radicals” in oil, which is a result of oxidization. You’ve seen the word “antioxidants” a lot in the media around food:  antioxidants fight free radicals, because free radicals cause cancer. Olive oil should help us fight cancer – unless we get the wrong stuff or overheat it, then it’s going to do the opposite. Yikes! Told you it was a tangled web! How hot can olive oil get before it’s too hot? That depends on what kind of oil you have. An oil’s smoke point is the point at which it begins to break down (at the cellular level = free radicals), which causes health detriments and an unpleasant (burnt?) taste. The following are the Wikipedia smoke points for olive oil:

  • Olive oil Extra virgin 375°F
  • Olive oil Virgin 420°F
  • Olive oil Extra light 468°F

You can imagine that much of the sautéing you do, and especially if you’re trying to sear meat in a hot pan, could easily get your EVOO over 375°F. For this reason, many sources recommend using virgin olive oil if you’re going to cook with it and EVOO for cold consumption, like in salad dressings. Real Age docs even list the smoke point at 320, and conservative recommendations say not to heat over 300.

How to Use EVOO Without so Much Heat

  1. Homemade salad dressings
  2. Dipping plate for breads (add herbs or a few drops of balsamic vinegar for a restaurant-style experience!)
  3. Add to mashed potatoes with garlic
  4. Spritz or drizzle on steamed veggies after cooking
  5. “Healthy Saute” in a bit of chicken stock, then add the oil right at the end of cooking
  6. Make pesto
  7. Make Bruschetta
  8. Drizzle on cooked pasta with herbs instead of sauce, or with tomatoes too

Important Notes on How to Store Olive Oil

Light damages oils just as heat does, so be sure to buy opaque containers. If you can only find clear glass containers of EVOO, at least grab it from the back of the shelf and shop at a store that is busy enough to be restocking often (from opaque cardboard boxes, right?). Don’t put your oil in a fancy glass bottle on the counter, and be sure to  store it away from heat sources. If you buy in bulk, store most of your oil in a cool, dark place (out of the kitchen if possible), and use it all up within a year. The antioxidants are reduced and Vitamins A and E drop off by 40-100% respectively after 12 months. Yikes! I have a gallon in my basement…better get moving on it! After just two months’ exposure to light, peroxide (free radical) levels had increased so much that the olive oil could no longer be classified as extra virgin. Tinted glass containers screen out some light, but non-reactive dark plastic or metal containers are the best choice for preserving olive oil’s beneficial compounds. (World’s Healthiest Foods)

Tips for how to buy and use olive oil :: via Kitchen Stewardship

(photo source)

One Small Step

One of the tiniest baby steps I took while preparing to begin this blog and drowning myself in research was to move my bottle of EVOO. Yes, I still cook with it, but I’m very careful about only using medium heat or lower. I’m still learning a lot and may get virgin oil next time around. I always stored my olive oil in the cupboard over my stove, a pretty convenient, but hot and happenin’ spot. I finally moved it to the ONLY other cupboard tall enough for the bottle: over the sink. It’s definitely less convenient, and my husband couldn’t find it for a few months, but I finally decided that the risk of creating rancid oil just wasn’t worth it! Simple, baby steps. Try it at your house. Olive Oil is definitely a REAL food. Find more great links to Real Food Wednesday at Cheeseslave this week. Recipes in my “box” with olive oil:

Plus lots of my soup and bean recipes begin with a little saute in olive oil…over very low heat!…check out the Recipes tab for a list. Good link for recipes and info:  California Olive Ranch EVOO (although remember that this is a retail source trying to sell a product, and take their advice with that in mind.)  The recipes are diverse and unique! photos from Flickr Other Super Food Health Benefits:

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23 Bites of Conversation So Far

  1. Bronwyn says

    Thanks for this! This morning I was going to go off and do some research about the implications of grilling/sauteeing EVOO, and here this was in my inbox. I had noticed that my grilled, EVOO infused meats tended to acquire a strange oily paste that I am fairly certain couldn’t be good. It’s very interesting stuff– I’ll definitely be saving my delicious Spanish EVOO for drizzling, and going out to get some virgin olive oil for all else.

  2. says

    Great information about this important oil! Thanks for sharing all this detailed information with your readers. I have always wondered how hot olive oil could be heated up, there is a lot of conflicting information. I always try to keep it below 350 (I’ve been using it on steak in the oven), but sometimes I also use coconut oil, which produces great results as well and it is a very stable oil. I’ve heard from various sources that olive oil should be refrigerated too. Is that something you have ever come across?

    • Katie says

      I have never seen anything about refrigerating olive oil. It seems unnecessary, unless you have to keep it for a very long time. But then you’d take up too much space in your fridge, in my opinion. ?? Thanks for the question, though.

  3. Mallory says

    Thanks for the great information! I heard about the way heat destroys EVOO and have since started using the “healthy saute” with stock that you mention for all my stove-top cooking.

    The trouble I’m having is figuring out what oil is good for using in baking. I like to use part oil part applesauce in muffins and quickbreads, which clearly bake at temps higher than 375. I thought canola oil would be a healthy choice, but I recently learned about that big oil deception–so I have no idea what to use!!!

    I’ve seen a lot of “natural” and organic bakeries in my area use expeller pressed safflower oil, but I’m not sure if this has any nutritional value to distinguish it from a standard vegetable oil. Any thoughts?

    • Katie says

      You hit upon one of my toughest fat/oil issues as well. I looked into safflower oil (very briefly!) and found conflicting info immediately. Super. Sounds like you can get monounsaturated safflower and polyunsaturated, which is very heat sensitive. Probably cooking with monounsat. safflower oil (check the label) would be a better option than vegetable oil for baking. Here’s a quote: “The main fat in all safflower oil used to be less desirable omega-6 polyunsaturates. But now most safflower oil is around 75% oleic acid. That’s the same good-type monounsaturated fat in olive oil and avocados. Thus, most safflower oil contains as much healthful mono fat as olive oil. But some of the old-type high omega-6 safflower oil is still around. Be sure the label on safflower oil indicates “high oleic acid.” It’s from a 2002 USA Weekend (http://www.usaweekend.com/02_issues/020929/020929eatsmart.html) so old news.

      For myself, I think the best answer for a liquid oil for baking is melted butter or melted, refined coconut oil. Even though it means another pot to wash (grrrrr). At least butter is a natural fat without questions of what is in it! My husband actually made a cake with olive oil once (“But it said oil! That was the first oil I found!”) and it tasted….like olive oil. Not too good. 😉

    • Katie says

      I’ve read a tiny bit about ghee, but I’m not really there yet in my own kitchen. Thanks for the tips!

  4. Mallory says

    Thanks Katie!!!! It is so frustrating and perplexing to sort through so much conflicting research to find the “truth.” I will have to give coconut oil a try. Any particular reason for using “refined”? I usually associate the word refined with highly processed, but perhaps it has alternate meanings in the food world as so many other terms do!

    • Katie says

      Coconut oil is best for you unrefined – you’re right that refined means processed. In the case of coconut oil, it smells and tastes like coconuts, which would only work in some baked goods but would really mess with others. When I explored coconut oil (which is a solid! It took me a while to figure that out!), I bought a (small) jar of refined and tried it in recipes that called for shortening. All was well. Then I bought a small jar of virgin stuff (unrefined) and experimented again. We liked the good stuff enough that I now have a gallon and am working through it quickly! It works great as the fat in things like granola bars and pancakes, and even banana muffins. Good luck!

  5. says

    Hey Katie–

    I wanted to clarify something about baking with oils. Just because the OVEN is set for 350F or whatever doesn’t mean the food gets that hot. I roast chicken at 450F, but the chicken meat doesn’t get hotter than 170F. When baking bread in a 350F oven, it is done when it reaches an internal temp fo 190-200F. So, if you wanted to use olive oil on baked goods, that shouldn’t be a problem. The surface temperature doesn’t go much above 300F.

    Personally, I use ghee, bacon fat, tallow, or occasionally safflower or sunflower oil for sauteing and frying, butter or coconut oil for baking, and olive oil for low temp saute and of course, salad dressings and other un-cooked preparations.

  6. Katie says

    So…if you are going to substitute canola or vegetable oil for a high heat application like grilling or such, wouldn’t it be just as good to use the “100% Pure Olive Oil” type of olive oil?

    • Katie says

      If I understand your question correctly, you’re saying that if you need a high heat stable, liquid oil, you might as well use slightly less healthy olive oil than another, even less healthy oil? I agree completely.

      :) Katie

  7. Michelle says

    Palm oil/shortening is a less expensive flavourless option for use in baking as well. Personally I’d rather use it for high heat stuff than any version of olive oil… doesn’t take much to get it liquid. I have SS measuring cups that I use on the stove as needed. I keep my palm oil stored as chips in ziploc bags in the freezer. I huck a few chips in the bottom of the pan with whatever fries etc I’m cooking and as it melts, I stir it in… or you could let it melt first and then add your food. It is nice to have a mild flavoured heat stable oil to play with.

    Refined coconut is good too… just twice the cost. Virgin coconut oil is double that again (basically 4-5 times the cost of palm).

    Bacon/pork drippings for veggies or eggs, or even potatoes is a special treat… as is duck fat! I can only handle tallow when I’m doing a dish with actual beef in it. :)

    • Katie says

      All good options – I’m just so lazy, I sure love something I can just uncap and pour quickly, rather than grabbing a utensil to dig it out of the jar. I know…THAT’s really lazy! I move fast when I’m cooking, though. :) Katie

  8. says

    EXCELLENT post! I love olive oil and use it for everything! I actually thought I was “skimping” to just buy virgin oil to cook w/ recently….now I’m glad I did! Thanks again for all this info! I’m definitely sharing this!!

  9. says

    Indeed a very informative article with a great personal and warm voice.
    Given the fact that I live in Greece and I know a lot about olive oils ( i produce some myself for family needs) I find it absolutely necessary to add to the article the fact that olive oil as a great mono- and polyunsaturated fat source is the best choice for someone who follows a fat loss diet.
    Be sure to use it in moderation as 1gr of olive oil has 9Kcal, therefore it can be fattening only if used without moderation.

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