What's the Difference Between Olive Oil and Extra Virgin Olive Oil

It's more than just the price.

Olive Oils
Olive oil comparison. Photo: Tetra Images

At least 6,000 years before Crisco came on the scene, olive oil was the hottest commodity in a cook's (and baker's) cupboard. The unique characteristics of this natural oil allow for a variety of delicious applications, which is why it has not only been used to marinate, sauté, and preserve some of the most delicious foods in the world, but it is also a key component in various cakes and other baked goods (pairing especially well with a rich dark chocolate). But walk down the baking aisle, find the olive oils, and you'll be confronted with bottles ranging from $7 to $30 and covering the color spectrum from pale yellow to deep green.

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What's the Difference?

Olive oil and extra-virgin olive oil taste different and do not react the same way to the heat of cooking. All olive oil comes from the fruit of the olive plant, but what accounts for the difference is how the oil is extracted and processed.

Olive Oil

Any oil with this title (sometimes called "Pure Olive Oil" or "Light Olive Oil") is most likely lighter in color (pale yellow) and costs less than its extra-virgin counterpart. This oil is typically a blend of cold-pressed olive oil and olive oil that has been refined to remove any natural impurities in the oil. In order to do this, the oil has been treated either chemically or with heat. The resulting oil is lighter in color, almost neutral in flavor, and able to withstand a higher temperature than extra-virgin olive oil.

Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

Any olive oil that is certified as "extra-virgin" has not been exposed to a chemical or heat treatment, meaning the oil has been cold-pressed from the fruit. This leaves a higher-quality oil that is more flavorful and darker in color. There is a wide range in taste from one extra-virgin olive oil to another, from herbal and fruity to bitter and peppery, depending on the olives harvested. Because this oil highlights the flavor of the olives, the farmers and oil makers take extra care in picking the best olives for the extra-virgin oil. Also, since this oil has not been "refined," it has a lower smoke point (it burns at a lower temperature), requiring extra caution when cooking so you don't burn the oil and give your food an unpleasant taste.

Which Should I Buy?

Typically, olive oil is a safer bet when cooking because of the higher smoke point and neutral flavor, and extra-virgin olive oil is ideal for a flavorful dressing, a dip for bread, or a last minute pour over a cooked piece of meat. However, this is entirely a matter of preference. If you enjoy the taste of extra-virgin olive oil, use it for both cooking and finishing!

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