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.
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.
Read on to discover what makes extra virgin olive oil so special, which olive oil to buy, and how to use olive oil in the kitchen.
What is extra virgin olive oil?
Extra virgin olive oil is the purest form of olive oil, made from cold-pressed olives which 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.
Meanwhile lower-grade oils can be made from olives that have been heat-treated, pressed several times, or they can be made with a mix of different blended oils – all of these processes dilute the original ‘olive’ flavour.
Can extra virgin olive oil be used for cooking?
Yes, it is possible to cook with extra virgin olive oil – but it might be a waste of the more nuanced flavours, which are lost when the oil is heated. Extra virgin olive oil has a lower smoking point than blended or refined olive oils, at around 180-210°C. This means it is not as practical to do high-temperature cooking with extra virgin olive oil compared to other oils: for example searing meat. You should never deep fry food using extra virgin olive oil.
The best way to enjoy the delicate flavour of extra virgin olive oil is to drizzle it over finished recipes, or use it for dipping bread. When cooking with extra virgin olive oil, heating can change the flavour profile, and you might lose some precious olive notes.
However, for lower temperature cooking, such as slowly stewing Mediterranean vegetables for a caponata or ratatouille, extra virgin olive oil does bring wonderful rich flavour. We also like sweating onions for soups, pasta sauces and other stews in olive oil where you will still taste some of the flavours in the final dish.
Depending on the variety of olive oil you’re using, the strong olive flavour can be overpowering if it’s used in large quantities. For instance, making mayonnaise with only extra virgin olive oil creates a very punchy result, which is not to everyone’s taste. Instead, we might use half extra virgin olive oil and half a more neutral oil to give a more delicate flavour.
How do I store olive oil?
Light and heat are olive oil's biggest enemies. If olive oil has been affected by sunlight its appearance will change from glowing to dull, and often turn from green to yellow.
Heat and light also make olive oil turn rancid far more quickly than if it's stored properly.
UVA and UVB rays in sunlight cause a process known as 'photo-oxidation'. These high-energy light rays cause the oxygen in the oil to get 'excited'. This now-energetic oxygen starts to 'attack' (or oxidise) the fat molecules in olive oil. The end result is that all those lovely flavours and aromas get broken down, and you're left with a bland or rancid olive oil.
This is the reason you'll see most high-end olive oils in either tins or dark coloured glass bottles. Dark coloured glass – especially greenish-brown glass – absorbs most of the destructive UV rays, and opaque tins don't let any UV rays in at all.
To keep your olive oil at its best, store it somewhere dark and cool. Most kitchen cupboards or pantries are suitable. The closer to the floor the better, as this is where it's cooler.
The absolute best temperature to store olive oil at is 15°C.
How fresh is my olive oil?
Even when stored correctly, olive oil will slowly lose its flavour over time. As with most things food-related, fresh is best!
Olive oil is usually good to use for 24 months after harvest (if it’s kept in a cool dark place), and some bottles will have the harvest date printed so you can tell exactly how old it is. They might even display a best before date. However, many olive oils don’t...
- The main way to tell if an oil is past its best, or has started to go rancid, is by its flavour and aroma. If you've tried different olive oils and thought they all tasted the same, chances are you've not tried a fresh one.
- The older an olive oil gets, the 'flatter' its flavour becomes. A fresh oil might be peppery, fruity, grassy or nutty – but it should never be bland.
- If an oil has started to go rancid it will smell unpleasantly sweet. It will make you think of fermenting fruit. It won’t smell appetising!
Sometimes you can tell how fresh an oil is by its colour. An old oil may have a dull, yellow appearance. Although this isn't true for all olive varieties. For instance, perfectly ripe Taggiasca olives produce a deeply golden yellow oil even when they are fresh.
What is new season olive oil?
New season olive oils are made with the year’s first harvest and offer unrivalled intensity and complexity of flavour. When they’re at their freshest you can really taste the difference between olive varieties – and even different olive growing regions.
Just like a fine wine, olive oils have many layers and nuances of flavour and new season oils offer the best opportunity to discover just how good olive oil can taste. A fresh new season olive oil will have you picking out all sorts of different flavours – is that almond perhaps? Are there notes of tropical fruit?
Find your favourite new season olive oil and it will make a big difference to your meals.
Just like wine, different oils pair well with different foods. Some work better with fish, while others are perfect for vegetables. And then there are olive oils that you’ll want to enjoy as simply as possible with some fresh bread for dipping.
Mid-October to early February is olive harvesting season here in the northern hemisphere. By the time January rolls around, the first of the new season olive oils are pressed and bottled – and it's not long before they start arriving at Sous Chef! We normally receive our first news season olive oils in February and March.
Which olive oil should I buy?
As soon as you open the Grand Brahis ‘noir’ you're met with the intense aroma of fresh black olives. This carries through into the flavour - it's perhaps the most olive-y tasting olive oil we've ever had! In contrast to the vert, this has a very soft mouthfeel - not peppery at all. Try the noir with ratatouille, pasta with truffles or garlic snails.
This olive oil has gathered much attention over the last few years, and in a taste test for The Times, chef Francesco Mazzei calls it "A f***ing great olive oil. It has a beautiful fragrance, a cascade of flavours and absolutely no pepper or harshness in the finish. It’s perfect."
Meanwhile, the Grand Brahis vert has nutty almond and rich buttery notes, but a surprisingly peppery finish you can feel in the back of your throat. You may also detect notes of artichoke and even the grassiness of hay.
Dishes like grilled trout, asparagus salads and bouillabaisse are excellent pairings for this olive oil. Use the to elevate a simple tomato soup, along with torn basil leaves, chunks of mozzarella and crusty bread for an easy lunch fit for royalty!
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.
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 - drizzled over salads or white fish and seafood - or simply pour into a small dish and devour with fresh bread.