One of the reasons there are so many different oils and different flavors is that there are so many different varieties of trees producing the olives. Some will produce a strong, assertive and even slightly bitter oil, while others will be more mild. Just as winemakers can choose among a variety of grapes to make a blend, or use the same type of grape from different growing locations for a wine, so can olive oil bottlers produce the flavor of oil they want by blending oil from different olive trees or from trees grown in different locations or climates.
A brief example: the Spanish variety, Arbequena, produces a mellow, smooth-tasting oil, while an Italian Frantoio is bolder, offering a characteristic sharpness on the finish. Also, don’t overlook Australian olive oil producers, as there are some fine oils coming from there. As you learn olive varieties, you’ll notice some labels will name those used in the blend.
While you might not want to learn all the names and characteristics of olive varieties (there are hundreds), you can select from a number of oils in a price range you want to pay, then taste them and note their flavors. You’ll find a spicy, herbal-tasting oil that you might like for salads or marinades, and a milder tasting oil for baking.
As you familiarize yourself with the olive oils on the shelves at the store, read the labels. These have important information about the relative acidity in the oil, and quality. Cold-pressed extra virgin oil is made by using a light pressure to extract the oil with lowest acidity, which is desirable. Plus, chemicals are not used in the extraction. Extra virgin olive oil comes from the first cold pressing and has about 1 percent acidity.
Virgin olive oil is also a first-press oil, with a slightly higher acidity, between 1-3 percent, according to “Food Lover’s Companion.” Fino olive oil is a blend of extra virgin and virgin oils, and a product labeled simply “olive oil” contains a combination of refined olive oil and virgin or extra virgin oil.
So, one might think of the darker-in-color, more expensive oils almost as condiments. Pour them on a plate with a little balsamic vinegar and some herbs and fresh garlic for a bread dip. Pour into a hearty minestrone to enrich the soup. Use it on salads and in cold emulsions, such as mayonnaise. Use the lighter oils, such as virgin oil, to cook with. Olive oil can be safely heated up to 350 degrees.
Store olive oil in the refrigerator and it can keep up to a year. If it gets cloudy, let it sit at room temperature for awhile and it will clear up and melt to pouring temperature. It can be kept unrefrigerated as well, in a cool dark place (or in a dark-colored bottle, for up to 6 months.