If you have seen someone in the Mediterranean cook or have even watched a Mediterranean cooking program, you know that olive oil is essentially the only oil that is used in all aspects of cooking in this region. There are countless varieties of olive oil that range in taste depending on where they were produced, with what type of olive, and through what process. There are organic oils produced in very small quantities by artisan growers and there are huge corporations that also produce good oils. Try a taste test with mini-bottles to find the oil that best suits your needs. Or try a new variety each time you need oil. You can also find excellent olive oils grown in the U.S. in your local gourmet food market or online.
The most flavorful (and healthiest) tend to be the extra-virgin olive oils, which have a darker greenish hue and a stronger olive taste. This is for the olive lover and is normally reserved for dressing salads and vegetables or dipping crusty European-style bread. Virgin olive oil is a bit less flavorful but, like extra-virgin, is free of refined oils.
Olive oil without the addition of virgin or extra-virgin contains refined oil to some degree and has a blander taste. This oil is often used for frying and other forms of cooking in the Mediterranean. My mother-in-law in Spain, like all other Spanish cooks, buys a large can of olive oil and uses it exclusively. There is no canola or vegetable oil to be found!
People unfamiliar with olive oil say you can’t bake with it, but this is not the case. There are wonderful, moist cakes that can be made with this healthy oil. Search the internet for “bizcocho de aceite de oliva” (olive oil cake)and you will find many authentic recipes for a simple but tasty cake. There are many other cakes and desserts from countries such as Spain and Italy that use olive oil in the recipe. There is even olive oil ice cream, believe it or not! Search the internet for “helado de aceite de oliva” for easy recipes (in Spanish!)!
When cooking with olive oil, it is important to note that it burns more quickly than other oils so be careful. Also, olive oil needs to be protected from the light or it will go rancid more quickly. This is one reason why you often find olive oil packaged in tins instead of bottles.