There are only a few cardinal sins in Spanish cooking, as far as I’m concerned. Substituting saffron with food colouring in a paella? An abomination. Saying serrano ham and parma ham are the same? Please, stop. But the most common mistake? Using extra virgin olive oil for EVERYTHING. There’s no need! Save your pennies and that precious oil for the dishes that really need it. Here’s a quick guide to the different types of olive oil and how to use them.
Olive trees were first brought to Spain by the Phoenicians in around 1050 B.C.E., where they thrived in the country’s warm climate. From 212 B.C.E., the Roman occupation encouraged the widespread production of olive oil, later harnessed and improved by the Moors during their occupation of Spain from 711 C.E.
In terms of volume, Spain is the biggest producer of olive oil in the world, producing 1.3 million tons every year.
Olive oil comes in four main types, each having their own uses:
This is the first press of the olives, giving the strongest flavour. It is also produced by a method of cold pressing, meaning that there is no heat applied which can impair the flavour. It is the richest and most flavourful of the different types of olive oil. It also has a low smoking point, meaning that it is better for using cold, rather than using for cooking. It is also more expensive and has a stronger flavour, so works best for finishing dishes and using in dressings and dips.
Produced in the same way as extra virgin olive oil, but usually with some impairment to the flavour. It still has good flavour, but not as polished and refined as extra virgin. It is therefore a better choice for cooking with, such as sautéing, frying and baking, rather than dressings.
Olive oil is a combination of refined olive oil and 15%-25% virgin olive oil. The refined oil component is treated with some heat and chemicals to remove flavour defects. It is lighter in colour and had a much milder flavour. It has a higher smoking point, and can therefore be used for deep-frying, as well as baking, sauteing and frying.
Light olive oil
Like regular olive oil, light olive oils are a combination of refined olive oil and 5%-10% virgin olive oil. They are even milder and paler, imparting less of the characteristic flavours. It has the highest smoking point, making it the best choice for high-heat cooking.
Like wine, olive oil is produced using a variety of different types of olives, each imparting their own unique flavours. Olives harvested early produce a more peppery and pleasantly bitter oil, whilst riper olives give a more buttery and fruity taste.
The most common varieties are:
Picaul – the most common variety, with a strong and bitter taste.
Arbequina – a lighter, smoother and fruitier flavoured variety.
Hojiblanca – a sweet, smooth and light variety of olive.