If you live in Spain, it's impossible for olive oil not to be a part of your daily life. We douse our toast with it for breakfast, swirl it over our salads for lunch, and begin practically every recipe with it for dinner.
In a country where people consume more than 2.5 gallons (10 liters) of olive oil per year, it's almost impossible to find a plate without at least a few drops of liquid gold. And while deciding among the dozens of bottles of Spanish olive oil at the grocery store may seem intimidating, it's worth brushing up on the basics so you can choose the best.
A few years ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Andalusian province of Jaén to learn all about the extra virgin olive oils produced in the region. It was an intense two days of Spanish olive oil 101, but we loved every minute of it!
Despite the short time frame, we learned a lot thanks to our excellent instructors. Among them were Anuncia Carpio Dueñas and the teachers from the La Laguna School of Hotel and Catering in Baeza, Jaén.
If you also find Spanish olive oil completely fascinating, this guide is for you. (And I strongly encourage attending an olive oil tasting in Jaén if you get the chance!)
History of Olive Oil in Spain
Olive oil has been flavoring Spanish cuisine for more than 3,000 years. To trace the flow of oil throughout history, all you have to do is head south.
Spaniards have the Phoenicians to thank for first bringing olive trees here around 1050 BC. But it wasn't until the Romans occupied the Iberian Peninsula starting around 212 BC that olive oil really caught on. Spain's excellent olive-growing climate made it a hub of the Roman Empire's olive oil production.
When the Moors took control of the Iberian Peninsula starting in 711, they brought with them more advanced processing techniques, setting up the Spanish olive oil industry to become the behemoth it is today. In fact, the Moors were so influential that the Spanish world for oil, aceite, comes from the old Arab-Hispanic world azzáyt, which means "olive juice."
Today, regions in every corner of Spain produce olive oil. The areas with the highest production are the provinces of Jaén and Córdoba in Andalusia, with Castilla-La Mancha, Catalonia, and the Balearic Islands contributing to Spain's overall output as well.
Spanish Olive Oil 101
With more than 260 varieties of olives, 30 different Denomination of Origin Control zones (similar to the quality control regions in wine), and a whopping half of the world's total output, Spain's olive oil game is strong.
But not all olive oils are created equal—not even all Spanish olive oils!
From arbequina to hojiblanca to picual and everything in between—this guide will show you everything you need to know about how to pick the best Spanish olive oil for your needs, taste, and budget.
What Exactly Is Olive Oil?
To understand olive oil we have to remember that olives are fruits and, like many fruits, they grow on trees. Just like apple trees make apples for apple juice, olive trees produce olives for olive juice—or olive oil!
Each olive generally contains between 15–25 percent oil. The rest of its weight consists of water (about 50 percent), skin, pulp, pit, and seed.
From Olives to Olive Oil
Olive fruits form towards the beginning of a Spanish summer and are bright green and hard. As they mature, they grow in size and begin to change color: first towards a yellow-green, and then light purple, dark purple, and finally black.
The best time to collect the olives is as soon as they start to change color, which is at the beginning of fall (October/November here in Spain). Yet some producers wait longer, erroneously thinking that the olives will continue to grow and plump up, therefore producing more oil.
In reality, the longer they wait the more likely it is that the olives will become bruised or tear, therefore causing fermentation and other defects.
To remove the olives from the trees there are various systems. The best are machines that shake the trees quite violently, making the olives fall off onto nets that workers quickly gather up and load onto trucks.
After removing the olives from the trees, they go straight to the almazara, or olive oil factory. There, it's time to clean them. Leaves and branches are blown off the olives, and they are washed to remove any dust, pollen or dirt.
Next, the olives pass through a mill where they come out as a pulp, then they make their way into a sort of blender that slowly churns the pulp. To separate the olive oil from the pulp, most companies use a centrifuge system, which does a pretty good job—temperatures during this process never go above 30°C (86°F).
The old fashioned “cold-pressed” systems are few and far between nowadays, as they aren’t nearly as efficient. Cold-pressed is most likely a marketing gimmick if you see it on a bottle (though not always).
Here the olive oil is ready to consume: 100 percent juice of the olive. However, this unfiltered oil (the hazy type you’ll see in some shops) does contain water and traces of the olives, and it is this moisture that gives it that haze.
This oil is perfectly fine for consumption—even desirable—but unless the oil will be consumed quickly (within a month or so) it is preferable to filter the olive oil. This will rid it of water and increase its shelf life.
Olive Oil's Enemies
Our teachers in Jaén stressed that olive oil is not like wine—it does not improve with age! Instead, they told us to think of it like freshly squeezed orange juice: you want to consume it quickly.
In reality, olive oil has lots of enemies that will shave precious months off of its shelf life:
- Oxygen: Every time that olive oil makes contact with air it oxidizes, and eventually will become rancid. Don’t leave the bottle open!
- Warm temperatures: Do not keep your olive oil next to the stove! Store it in a cool, dark place. This can increase its shelf life and slow down oxidation. Someone asked what to do during a hot Andalusian summer, when temperatures soar above 100°F. Our teachers advised us to keep the olive oil in the refrigerator, despite the fact that it will likely solidify (this will barely affect its quality).
- Sunlight: You know it’s likely a good olive oil when in comes in a black or opaque bottle. As pretty as see-through glass bottles can be, they allow dangerous light to enter and affect the precious oil. Light, even artificial light, will speed up the oxidation process. Don’t buy olive oil from a shop if it is sitting in a display light!
Virgin vs. Extra Virgin
Depending on the quality of the olives, how they were pressed (and how many times), oils can change drastically from robust and excellent to chemical and inedible. The European Union strictly regulates how oils can be classified.
Olive oil experts use a 10-point scale to judge oils on an array of quality criteria. Extra virgin oils have to achieve a perfect score. Virgin oils can have up to 3.5 percent defects and an acidity of up to 2 percent.
Extra virgin olive oil is the créme de la créme of olive oil and thus comes with a slew of requirements.
- Pressing of the olives must occur less than 24 hours after harvest, using either a traditional press or a centrifuge system (the most common these days as presses allow for bacterias that could ruin the oil).
- No chemicals can ever touch the oil.
- It must be 100 percent olive juice, no additives.
- It also cannot be heated above 27° C (80.6° F), which is the maximum temperature it would reach during the centrifuge process.
- Extra virgin olive oil can't have any defects in color, smell or taste (a panel of experts tests for defects)
- It must have an acidity below 0.8 percent (though most are actually under 0.3 percent).
You'll often see words like "cold-pressed," "all-natural," or "unrefined" on extra virgin olive oil labels, all of which are superfluous! If it is really extra virgin oil, by law, it has to be all of those things.
Only extra virgin oils can be sold under Denomination of Origin Control labels. Like DOCs for Spanish wines, these regulate quality and are tied to geographical regions.
Virgin oils are also chemical-free and can only be pressed using traditional presses or centrifuges. The difference with these oils is that they can have some slight imperfections of color, smell and taste.
As virgin oils are still raw, unheated oils they retain many of the health benefits of extra virgin oils. They are rather hard to find, though. Most virgin oils are mixed with refined oils and sold as just plain "olive oil."
If the oil has a high acidity (more than 2 percent) and many defects, it is dubbed "lampante oil" and destined for the refinery. Lampante gets its names from the olden days, when it was used as lamp oil.
In order to make this olive oil fit for consumption, producers refine it with solvents (chemicals) which take away its various defects. The result: a light-colored, flavorless oil. They then mix it with a small percentage (about 5–10 percent) of virgin (or occasionally extra virgin) oil to give it the desired flavor profile and color—and trick many consumers into thinking it's somewhat healthy!
These refined oils are often sold in Spain as "suave" (smooth olive oil) which has a light color and flavor, or "intenso" or (intense olive oil) which is a bit darker in color and stronger in flavor. It's all marketing though, as these oils contain minimal health benefits.
Olive Oil Health Benefits
As a staple of the Mediterranean diet and the most important ingredient in any Spanish kitchen, extra virgin olive oil comes packed with health benefits. It's high in monounsaturated fatty acids (AKA healthy fats) like oleic acid, which reduces inflammation and may even reduce the risk of cancer.
While words like "fats" may make some people think of weight gain, the opposite is actually true here. Regular consumption of olive oil is not linked to weight gain, and in some cases may even result in weight loss.
As if that wasn't enough, extra virgin olive oil has tons of vitamins and antioxidants. This allows it to lower cholesterol and reduce the risk of heart attacks and strokes when consumed regularly.
To sum it up: If you aren't regularly consuming extra virgin olive oil, you should be!
Popular Varieties of Spanish Olive Oil
Like grape varieties in winemaking, the secret to great olive oil is great olives!
Hundreds of different types of olives grow in Spanish soil—a few dozen of which show up most commonly in olive oil. Each type of olive has a unique flavor profile, from spicy to sweet, smooth to acidic. Professionals are able to detect a multitude of tasting notes, just like with wines!
Many extra virgin oils come labeled with the type of olive they use. Like wine, many oils use only one type of olive. Here are a few of the most popular oil-making olives in Spain.
Picual is the most commonly grown olive in Spain, accounting for about half of all Spanish olive oil. It also happens to be one of the healthiest Spanish olives, with high levels of antioxidants.
This is a strong oil with lots of body and a slight bitterness. It's a great oil for frying as it withstands heat well, but it also adds a great touch to cold Spanish soups like gazpacho.
Though it depends on where they are grown, normally arbequina oils from northeastern Spain are light, fruity oils that often have flavors of apple and almond.
Unlike some of their stronger Spanish brethren, arbequina oil is usually extremely smooth with very little bite or astringency. This oil is most often used raw (not for cooking) on vegetables and fish.
This is the second most widely grown olive in Spain, coming from the Toledo region just south of Madrid. Cornicabra olives are difficult to pick mechanically and thus often appear in only the most expensive oils.
Cornicabra olive oils have a bit of a spicy bite at the end are great with roasted vegetables and meats.
Hojiblanca gets its name from the leaves (hojas) on this type of olive tree, which are white (blanca) on the underside. These trees grow almost exclusively in the southern province of Andalusia, where their fruit makes up about 16 percent of all the oil produced there.
Hojiblanca is good for baking and pasta-making because of its slightly sweet and smooth flavor. Plus, its high-fat content makes dough light and easy to work with.
Lechín olives come in two sub-varieties, both of which hail from Andalusia: lechín de Granada and lechín de Sevilla. These olives have a delicate fruity taste to start, with a whisper of spiciness that sneaks up on you near the end.
Unlike most other types, lechín is often blended with other varieties of olives when it becomes olive oil due to its low stability. However, you can still find single-variety lechín oils if you look hard enough!
Recipes Featuring Spanish Olive Oil
Cakes, cold soups, and sauces all rely heavily on olive oil in Spain. And good quality olive oil is also what gives our fried foods their special touch! Here are some of my favorite recipes that heavily feature Spanish olive oil.
- Salmorejo: This creamy cold tomato soup is one of my favorite Spanish foods of all time!
- Apple olive oil cake: A simple snacking cake bursting with tart apple flavor.
- Spanish olive oil cake with lemon and almonds: Another one of my favorite sweet snacks that's perfect for summer!
- Alioli: Spain's ubiquitous garlic-infused mayo, which makes everything even more delicious—from fried potatoes to fideua.
- Romesco sauce: Smoky, nutty, and piquant, this classic accompaniment to calçots is my favorite sauce of all time.
- Ajo blanco: A light and refreshing cold soup made with garlic, almonds, and bread (in addition to olive oil!).
- Gazpacho: The most classic of all Spanish cold soups, packed with fresh tomatoes and other veggies.
- Lemon yogurt cake: An easy and delicious dessert recipe that every Spanish home cook has in their back pocket.
- Spanish hummus: My recipe ups the ante on traditional hummus by adding Spanish flavors like toasted pine nuts, smoked paprika, and a generous drizzle of extra virgin olive oil.
Top Spanish Olive Oil Brands
Every year, the Spanish Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries, and Food names the top Spanish extra virgin olive oils. There are only four categories up for grabs, including the prestigious "Best Extra Virgin Olive Oil," and all eligible oils must meet the strict extra virgin quality standards.
A few of my personal favorite Spanish olive oils are Castillo de Canena, Oro Bailén, Venta del Barón, and Oro del Desierto. If you live in the US, you can find an excellent selection of extra virgin olive oils online at La Tienda.
Another standout brand is PRMRY, a project started by a friend of mine (and Spanish olive oil expert). They use Spanish olive varieties grown in California. Their unique Spanish-American olive oils are another excellent option for something stateside!
Spanish Olive Oil FAQs
Extra virgin olive oil is 100 percent olive juice. It cannot have any defects in its smell or flavor (measured on a scale of 1–10) and its acidity must be lower than 0.8 percent, meaning that the quality of the fruit was quite high.
Virgin olive oil has a bit more leeway, and some defects are allowed. On the 10 point scale, the defects can’t go above 3.5 percent, and the acidity can’t be more than 2 percent.
While there are definitely some great Italian olive oils out there, Spanish olive oil is considered the best in the world for many reasons. Technology used and developed in Spain has revolutionized the production process, resulting in an output of more high-quality oils, and the sheer amount of olive varieties grown here allows for plenty of flavor diversity.
Still not convinced? Just ask the World's Best Olive Oils organization, a non-profit that awards prizes to the top oils from around the globe. On average, 7 out of the top 10 olive oils in the world as ranked annually on their website come from Spain!
Absolutely! In fact, olive oil is what the overwhelming majority of Spanish cooks use for frying. Varieties with a high smoke point, like picual, are especially good for this.
Unlike a fine wine, olive oil does not get better with age. Instead, it's more like a fruit juice—you want to consume it as fresh as possible! When stored properly, extra virgin olive oil has a shelf life of 12–18 months.
Keep olive oil in a cool, dark place, away from heat and sunlight. Make sure the bottle is tightly closed to prevent oxidation.
The color of olive oil has no impact on taste or quality. Various genetic and environmental factors can affect the final color of the oil, which can be anything from a light yellow to a deep, rich green.
The best ones tend to be! The flavor profile of olive oil is affected by the variety of olive, its ripeness, the climate, and more. However, some degree of bitterness is often present in the best oils.
Here in Spain, we enjoy olive oil in many different ways. It can be used in salad dressings (either as a simple blend with vinegar or in a more elaborate recipe), sauce, to fry and stir fry, for baking (many Spanish cakes use olive oil rather than butter), on toast, and so much more.
Update Notice: This post was originally published on October 25, 2015 and was republished with new text and photos on April 7, 2021.
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Since moving to the South of Spain I've gone olive oil mad! Olive oil is definitely contributing to my healthier lifestyle. I can eat olives until they're coming out of my ears too! lol
Picual is my favorite olive oil. In Portugal me and a few buddies would buy 300 liters from a grower/processor as a year's supply. No comparison to the stuff you get in the super. It's also cheaper.
I love arbequina olives. They taste like little nuts to me! I first learned to like olives when I was in Spain. Now, my tapas table is non-existent without them!
Same here! I grew up with my father eating some very strong Italian and Greek olives every night and thought I didn't like them. But when I got to Spain, things changed quickly! Now I love all olives, even Dad's!