the ultimate guide to olive oil, extra virgin olive oil

Discover what olive oil is, how each variety differs in taste, and the best varieties to buy with our guide. 

Olive oil is the liquid that comes from pressed olives. Chefs across the world use olive oil for cooking, seasoning and finishing dishes. There are many different types of olive oil, and the flavours and characteristics vary depending on the type of olives used and how many times they have been pressed. 

In this article:

  • How is olive oil made?
  • How is extra virgin olive oil different?
  • The different flavour profiles of olive oil
  • What to look for when buying olive oil
  • Best French olive oil
  • Best Spanish olive oil
  • Best Italian olive oil
  • Best Greek olive oil
  • Glossary

  • How is olive oil made?

    Olive oil is made by pressing olives into a liquid. The process of making olive oil typically involves several steps, which are as follows:

    1. Harvesting: The olives are harvested from the trees when they are ripe, which is typically in autumn/winter. The olives are then washed to remove any dirt or debris.

    2. Crushing: The olives are crushed into a paste using a stone mill, hammer mill, or modern machines that use metal toothed blades. This process breaks down the olives into a thick paste, including the skins, flesh, and pits.

    3. Malaxation: The olive paste is then stirred or mixed to help separate the oil from the rest of the paste. This process is called malaxation and typically lasts between 20 and 40 minutes.

    4. Separation: The oil is separated from the rest of the paste by a process called pressing. The paste is placed into a press that applies pressure to the paste to extract the oil. The oil is then separated from the remaining liquid and solids.

    5. Filtering: The oil is then filtered to remove any remaining solids, such as bits of pulp or pit fragments.

    6. Storage: The oil is stored in a cool, dark place to prevent oxidation and maintain its flavour and nutritional qualities.

    How is extra virgin olive oil different?

    Extra virgin olive oil is made using the same process as regular olive oil, with the exception that it is made exclusively from the first cold-pressing of the olives. This gives the oil a stronger, more complex flavour profile, which closely reflects the variety of the olives and the climate they were grown in. Extra virgin olive oil is unrefined, and has an acidity of less than or equal to 0.8.

    Hand-harvesting vs machinery

    Large olive oil producers harvest olives at night using vacuum machines, which
    suck in and kill millions of sleeping and dazed songbirds each year. At Sous Chef, we only work with producers who use more artisanal harvesting methods, so the songbirds can rest happily in their olive trees.

    To learn more about why we only stock hand-harvested olive oil, read out article: saving the songbirds.


    The different flavour profiles of olive oil

    How does olive oil vary in taste?

    The taste of olive oil differs depending on the variety of olives used, how fresh it is and how many times the olives have been pressed – some olive oils might have grassy notes, others sweeter, others rich with notes of almond. Oils made with pitted olives are less bitter than other varieties – this is because the tannins and polyphenols that contribute to bitterness in oil are mainly found in the stones.

    The first olive pressing produces the best olive oil with the most distinct flavour, called extra virgin olive oil. Look out for new season extra virgin olive oil each year – this is made with the first pressing of the year’s first harvest of olives, and offers up some of the most excitingly complex, nuanced and ‘olive-y’ flavoured oil you can buy. 

    How does olive oil vary by region?

    The flavour and colour of olive oils differ by regions and countries. This is due to the variety of olives used, the climate and even the soil conditions. Italian olive oil has a darker hue, while Spanish olive oil is typically golden yellow. Olive oils made with ​​Spanish Arbequina and Picual olives tend to be sweeter, with a less bitter after taste, while an olive oil made with Apulian coratina olives has a pronounced spicniess – this is due to the exceptionally high levels of polyphenols in this variety of olive.

    Olive oils produced in the same country can differ dramatically, too. The French Grand Brahis vert is nutty and buttery, while the Grand Brahis noir has an intense aroma of fresh black olives.


    What to look for when buying olive oil

    When buying olive oil, there are several factors to consider to ensure that you're getting a high-quality product. Here are some things to look for:

    1. Extra virgin: Look for extra virgin olive oil, which is the highest quality and purest form of olive oil. All of the olive oil's that we stock are extra virgin.

    2. Origin: Look for olive oil that is made in a specific region, as this can give you an idea of the flavour profile and quality of the oil. Some regions known for producing high-quality olive oil include Italy, Greece, Spain, and France. 

    3. Olives: If a bottle of olive oil is high-quality it should say what olives it is made from. This will also give you an idea of the flavour profile of the olive oil. If it is made with a mixture of different olives it is more likely to be complex in flavour. It is made with pitted olives, it will be less bitter. And if made with young, green or black olives the flavour will be different again.

    4. Taste: Like fine wine, every bottle of olive oil will have different nuances in taste. All of our descriptions help to describe the flavour profile of olive oils so you can make an informed decision based on your preferences. See below for more examples.

    5. Packaging: Look for olive oil that comes in a dark glass bottle or tin to protect the oil from light and air. Clear bottles or plastic containers can cause the oil to degrade more quickly. Read more on how to store olive oil correctly here.


    Which olive oil should I buy?


    Best French olive oil

    We've found the oils that epitomise the flavours of Provencal olive groves. These oils are fruity, interesting and have a slight bitterness that isn't overpowering.


    Nicolas Alziari Provence Fruity & Intense Cuvée Pauline Olive Oil, 500ml

    Nicolas Alziari fruity & intense, or Cuvée Pauline, olive oil is an Alziari house-speciality made purely from young, green olives for a fresh and lively flavour. The olive oil is a blend of oils obtained from different European olive varieties, and the exact recipe is a closely-guarded secret over 70 years old! 

    The olive oil has a fresh, grassy aroma and a fruity flavour with a slight peppery kick. Drizzle over fresh tomato salads or simply enjoy as a dip for fresh bread. It’s also an ideal finishing touch for grilled meats or carpaccio.


    Maison Bremond Heritage Ripe Fruity Provence Extra Virgin Olive Oil, 500ml

    For over 188 years, Maison Bremond has celebrated the finest ingredients of Provence. They work closely with farmers to protect the Provençal environment, while producing extraordinary oils. This heritage extra virgin oil has a ripe and fruity flavour with a hint of floral sweetness. It is made from olives that are harvested by hand from the orchards of Monfort in Haute-Provence. The olive grove is made up of almost 1,500 trees, with olives of the Aglandau, Frantoio and Bouteillan varieties.


    Best Spanish olive oils


    Brindisa Arbequina Extra Virgin Olive Oil, 1l

    Use this cold pressed olive oil to season classic Spanish dishes such as the traditional breakfast of 'pan con tomate' – toast layered with crushed tomatoes and olive oil.

    The extra virgin olive oil is made with the Spanish Arbequina and Picual olives, and has a slightly sweet flavour with no bitter after taste. It's fantastic on baked white fish, paella, pasta and pizza. A great olive oil to keep on the table for seasoning as you eat.


    Nunez De Prado Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil, 500ml

    From the sun-drenched hills of Andalucia comes Núñez de Prado. It's a blend of three famous Spanish olive varieties: Hojiblanca, Picual and Picudo. What makes this olive oil extra special is that it's 'the Flower of the Oil', or Flor de Aceite – the absolute highest grade of olive oil, obtained even before the coveted first cold press.

    This olive oil is fruity and citrussy, yet somehow spicy at the same time. It has a peppery finish that balances the initial sweetness. Use as a finishing oil only – drizzle over salads or white fish and seafood, or simply pour into a small dish and devour with fresh bread.


    Best Italian olive oils

    Our collection of Italian olive oils showcases all that is exciting about the country's production. From the big, bold flavours of Puglian oils from Galantino and Gugliemi - to the fruity bitterness of Tumai Anfosso. There's a huge amount to explore and discover.


    Olio Guglielmi Organic IGP Puglia Extra Virgin Olive Oil, 500ml

    Olio Guglielmi is a Puglian family business that farms 160 hectares of groves - and has done for over 60 years. The oils are made with olive varieties native to the region. This superb extra virgin olive oil is sweet and spicy on the palate, and has a wonderful lingering complexity - and kick! It has notes of almond and jasmine. It’s a versatile finishing oil, ideal for drizzling over creamy cheeses, caprese salads and vegetables roasted with garlic and herbs.


    Puglian Extra Virgin Olive Oil in Blue Splatter Ceramic Bottle, 500ml

    The Galantino olive groves is home to over 15,000 Ogliarola and Coratina trees: a stunning visual feast spanning as far as the eye can see. Based in the beautiful mediaeval town of Bisceglie in the Apulia region of southern Italy, these olives are sun-drenched and full of flavour. The olive oil is cold-pressed on traditional stone mills by the Galantino family, who have been producing oil for nearly a century. The oil has a medium-fruity flavour, with aromas of artichokes and green, herbaceous notes. It has warming peppery afternotes, and a lingering hint of almond.


    Olio Guglielmi Single Varietal Coratina Extra Virgin Olive Oil, 500ml

    The Coratina olives in this bottle from Gugliemi has an unforgettable flavour and aroma. It is strong, intensely olive-y and a bold bitterness that becomes rounded spice - and stays on the palate long after you've enjoyed the first taste. This is an oil for connoisseurs, looking for somethign extraordinary.



    Frantoio Muraglia’s intense fruity olive oil is made only from Apulian coratina olives. The robust, rustic flavour of the olive oil comes from the exceptionally high levels of polyphenols in coratina olives, which lends the oil a pronounced spiciness. Expect notes of dill, fennel, pepper and artichoke in the aroma, with punchier vegetal notes in the mouth and a lingering bitter-spicy finish.


    Tumai Anfosso Extra Virgin Olive Oil, 500ml

    Tumai Anfosso extra virgin olive oil is a Ligurian speciality. The golden olive oil is made from a blend of medium-fruity Italian olives and has a slightly spicy aroma. On the palate, the Tumai olive oil is delicately fruity and sweet, with a balanced finish that combines bitter and peppery elements.

    Use Tumai Anfosso extra virgin olive oil to finish soups, salads and meat dishes. Or use to make the classic Ligurian pasta sauce – pesto.



    Best Greek olive oils


    Honest Toil Extra Virgin Greek Olive Oil, 500ml

    Honest Toil extra virgin olive oil is unfiltered, cold-pressed it is an outstanding example of fine Greek olive oil. Made from 100% Koroneiki olives that are picked by hand in the rural Greek countryside, it is pressed and extracted within hours of harvest for the freshest possible product with the purest flavour. 

    As the oil is unfiltered, it contains the sediment of olive skins and pips, giving it an opaque rich green colour and thickness. It has a light peppery spice that is balanced with fresh cut grass flavours for a full-bodied, raw extra virgin olive oil.


    Honest Toil Extra Virgin Greek Olive Oil, 1 litre+

    This innovative large 3 litre box of Greek extra virgin olive oil is packaged just like a box of wine – the oil is protected from light-degradation by the beautifully illustrated outer cardboard box, and contains an inner three-litre bag filled with oil. Just press the push-tap to easily dispense your oil – no struggling with an unwieldy large container! And it’ll look stunning on a kitchen shelf. 

    Taste the full flavour of this excellent olive oil by serving it with warm, just-baked bread at the start of a meal, swirling through a tomato soup or drizzling over vanilla ice cream for a smart and unexpected dessert. 


    Charisma Greek Extra Virgin Olive Oil Tin

    Use this golden-green, fruity olive oil for dressing Greek salads, drizzling over bread, or pouring over hummus before serving. Presented in a smart tin, this bottle makes a lovely gift, or simply have it on show in your kitchen


    Glossary of terms

    Extra Virgin Olive Oil

    Extra virgin olive oil is the purest form of olive oil, made from cold-pressed olives that haven’t been pressed before. This gives the oil a stronger, more complex flavour profile, which closely reflects the variety of the olives and the climate they were grown in. Extra virgin olive oil is unrefined, and has an acidity of less than or equal to 0.8.

    Virgin Olive Oil

    Extra virgin olive oil and virgin olive oil are both unrefined, however virgin olive oil has a higher level of acidity, between 0.8 and 2.0%. This means the flavour of virgin olive oil isn’t quite as nuanced as extra virgin, however the difference is very minimal.

    Cold Pressed Olive Oil

    Cold pressed olive oil is produced when the temperature of the olives during extraction does not go above 27°C. The olives are crushed into a paste, then separated into oil using a mechanical press. The simplicity of the cold pressing process means that no nutrients are removed or repurposed, and the natural aroma and flavour can shine through.

    Pomace

    Pomace is a by-product of olive oil, created during the olive oil making process. Pomace is the olive pulp which is left behind once the oil has been extracted. The pulp is then chemically treated and blended with other oils to create a finished product. Pomace is much lower in quality than olive oil – it lacks flavour and aroma.

    Unrefined Olive Oil

    Unrefined olive oil is produced without any chemical or heating interference, creating an incredibly high quality oil. As the oil is unrefined, you might sometimes find tiny pieces of olive within the oil. All extra virgin olive oils are unrefined.

    Refined Olive Oil

    Refined olive oil is treated with chemicals and heat to change certain characteristics of the oil, without altering the glyceridic structure. Unlike unrefined olive oil, refined olive oil is blander, lacking nuanced flavours.

    Shop different Italian olive oils here, or browse our complete guide to olive oil where you can learn how to store and cook with olive oil.



    7 comments

    • I have read that if a spoon full of virgin oil is taken a day it helps to relieve tired joints and helps the body to coup with other small problems. Thankyou.

      Kenneth on

    • I am looking for an organic olive oil for cooking, not extra virgin..

      I use Oro del Desierto extra virgin for finishing or salads etc

      Paul on

    • What is the best olive oil to cook with ?

      Jenny Robinson on

    • Hello Simon,

      The Nunez De Prado Organic Extra Virgin Olive Oil 500ml is certified organic.

      Edie at Sous Chef on

    • Do you offer certified organic olive oil?

      simon on

    • Hi Brain, None of the olive oils we stock harm any birds! It’s a firm condition when choosing our range! ~ Helena

      Helena @ Sous Chef on

    • Is honest toil olive oil the only one where birds are not harmed during harvesting or are there other hand harvested oils?

      Brian Hulme on

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