Before there were superfoods, there was olive oil. (Just ask Odysseus, who also swore by it for skincare.) Three thousand years later, olive oil is one of the ingredients cooks reach for most often—the first and last thing used in making some of the world’s greatest meals. A drizzle can elevate a simple vegetable to star status, and a few cups will transform chicken into something luxuriously tender. It can also be incredibly confusing. The green liquid in the $30 bottle looks just like the $5 option, and the media fearmongering about olive oil fraud is enough to make you swear off the supermarket stuff entirely (or cook only with butter). That would be a shame, though, because olive oil—extra-virgin, that is—is the culinary equivalent of liquid gold. Time to get (re)acquainted with the most loved, least understood ingredient in your kitchen.

Frankies brand has all the signs of good olive oil

Photo by Alex Lau

Know How to Read a Label

The first thing to learn is the difference between marketing jargon and real-deal info. These are all the markers you’ll find on a bottle of Frankies 457 Spuntino Extra Virgin Olive Oil (which comes from the Manhattan and Brooklyn restaurants, but can now be found in grocery stores and on Amazon for $35).

Extra Virgin
Extra-virgin is the highest standard for olive oil, regulated by various organizations, including the International Olive Oil Council. To be labeled EVOO, the oil should have no defects and must be unrefined, meaning it has never been treated with chemicals or heat. Virgin is next in the pecking order: It’s also unrefined but can have defects. Quality and price can range within the EVOO standard, but “extra virgin” is as close a guarantee as you can get, so use it for both cooking and drizzling.

First Cold Press
This phrase doesn’t mean much. Historically, oil was extracted using stone mills and presses; after the first press, the remnants were made into lower grades of oil by applying heat. Now most oil is extracted by press and centrifuge, and extra-virgin oil is by definition “cold.” If the oil is truly extra-virgin, “cold press” is just redundant.

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