Olive oil is arguably considered to be one of the best vegetable oils out there. At the very least, you aren’t likely to encounter any detractors armed with convoluted statistics and fiery arguments trying to dissuade you from including it in your diet, as you would when it comes to palm oil.
On the contrary, if anything, when googling extra virgin olive oil, you’re bound to find many an article waxing poetic about its long history, cultural significance, superior taste, or unique qualities.
Considering the exponential growth of olive oil sales across the globe, its supporters must have more than a kernel of truth on which to base their opinions. In the US only, olive oil consumption doubled between the 1990s and 2020s. And, as usual, when something explodes in popularity, more people wish to give it a try, so olive oil sales are bound to continue increasing in the future.
And with ever-growing popularity, certain debates have started to rear heads. A few years ago, people barely even knew there were more types of olive oil than refined and extra virgin. Nowadays, as more people have gotten picky about the food they consume, you’ll find more than one heated discussion around olive oil.
Which type is better used for cooking, refined or extra virgin olive oil? Which is superior, Spanish or Italian olive oil?
Which is better, filtered or unfiltered olive oil?
In the article below, we’ll do our best to break down what filtered and unfiltered olive oils are, the differences and similarities between the two, and why we believe both deserve your time of day in the kitchen.
What is Filtered Olive Oil?
The majority of extra virgin olive oil you’ll encounter on the store shelves is likely to be marked with the label “filtered.”
But what is filtering?
To understand the topic, first, we must explore how the EVOO production process works.
All EVOO production process starts out the same way. First, olives are picked from the trees, thoroughly cleaned, and crushed into a thick paste.
Secondly, the paste goes through an intense slow churning process referred to as “malaxation” by professionals. Malaxation lasts for around 20 to 40 minutes and is supposed to make the separation of oil from the solids.
After malaxation comes separation. The churned paste goes through a specialized horizontal centrifuge called a decanter. The decanter separates olive oil from solids and water in the paste. After that, the mass is put through another (this time - vertical) centrifuge that works at a higher speed to remove the remaining particles and leftover water.
And last, but not least, after separation comes filtration: the extra virgin olive oil that has come out of the centrifuge is put through a filtering material to remove the final remaining water and olive fruit particles. The commonly used mediums are cellulose pads or diatomaceous earth (a type of powder high in silica, made of fossilized algae that allows liquids - in this case, our new olive oil - to flow freely while trapping unwanted minuscule bits).
In the end, we are left with the extra virgin olive oil that is clear transparent gold in color from the top of the bottle to the very bottom.
What is Unfiltered Olive Oil?
The oil that comes out of the second centrifuge (the vertical one) is called “olio nuovo” - new oil. EVOO is perfectly safe for consumption at this stage, but it still contains visible amounts of olive fruit pulp and water. This is as unfiltered as EVOO gets.
Due to the remaining olive fruit and water particles, “olio nuovo” looks visibly different from the regular filtered olive oil. Instead of the transparent gold color, you have a liquid that’s almost entirely opaque and darker than the color.
Interestingly enough, olio nuovo isn’t the only type of unfiltered olive oil on the market. It might even be the rarest. Most unfiltered olive oil has at least some racking done. The gravity causes the sediment in the olive oil to sink to the bottom and naturally separate from the oil. That’s racking.
Producers store unfiltered olive oil in special tanks to somewhat accelerate the process. This is done to prolong the shelf life of an unfiltered EVOO once it gets bottled. As the particles aren’t going anywhere, racking is considered minimally invasive and not equivalent to filtering.
Why Does Olive Oil Get Filtered?
While the olive oil that comes out of the centrifuge is perfectly fit for consumption, filtering is just as mandatory a step in production as malaxation or separation for most olive oil producers.
There are several valid reasons for this, so it’s not like we can blame them (even though it does a somewhat complicated hunt for high-quality unfiltered EVOO for the appreciators).
The first is superficial and somewhat vain - aesthetics. Most people eat with their eyes first. It hardly matters how highly lauded the product is; most people aren’t likely to put something in their mouth if they don’t like the way it looks (unless it’s on a dare or we’re talking about a dedicated foodie that lives for the risk, but I digress).
Filtered olive oil looks more appealing to most people. It shares more visual characteristics with common vegetable oils like canola and sunflower. On the other hand, the opaque look of unfiltered olive oil may distress people who don’t know the technicalities behind the production process and live the wrong impression that the product has been “spoiled.”
The second reason is more practical: filtered extra virgin olive oil is more shelf-stable. The olive fruit particles in unfiltered olive oil may start fermenting over a certain period, which means its clock is ticking away a tad faster than the filtered EVOO.
Around twice as fast, in fact: filtered olive oil can be safely stored for up to 24 months, with no decline in its taste and qualities. In comparison, the unfiltered olive oil needs to be consumed within 12 months after production - and it may still decline in quality if pushed too close to the deadline.
Olio nuovo, which we mentioned earlier, is particularly sensitive in this regard. As it’s deliberately bottled with a higher amount of olive fruit and water particles remaining, the fermentation process is bound to start earlier than with your regular run-of-the-mill unfiltered EVOO that’s been through racking. The recommended average is around four months. However, the unofficial approach is “sooner the better.”
Main Differences Between Filtered and Unfiltered Olive Oils
Ah, now to the fun part. Which one is better, filtered or unfiltered olive oil?
Here’s what we can tell you: there’s no definitive answer, and if anyone claims they have one, they’re lying.
The main point of contention is, of course, taste. Those who prefer unfiltered EVOO tend to claim that the remaining olive fruit pulp gives it a richer, more pronounced flavor and more robust aroma. However, the consensus is that this is essentially the placebo effect.
The difference in taste would be minimal, if noticeable at all - and only in the first couple of months after production. Your best bet, in this case, would be fresh nuevo olio. After that, the difference will either disappear altogether or - here comes the other side - filtered olive oil might even have a more potent aroma due to better shelf stability.
One solid difference we do know is there when it comes to filtered vs. unfiltered EVOO is the polyphenol levels.
Polyphenols are naturally-occurring plant micronutrients packed with antioxidants and thus are thought to have certain health benefits. There are two types: polar, which gets dissolved in water, and non-polar, which gets dissolved in fatty acid. Since unfiltered olive oil contains a certain amount of water, it includes both types of polyphenols. Since water has been fully extracted from filtered olive oil, it, appropriately, contains only non-polar polyphenols.
Here’s the thing, though: there’s no need to bank on a single source when it comes to polyphenols. They naturally occur in many fruits, vegetables, spices, and even certain teas. Olive oil, filtered or unfiltered, won’t make or break your polyphenol (and thus antioxidant) intake.
The one actual difference between filtered and unfiltered EVOO? It’s the way they look. If the filtered and unfiltered olive oils taste different to you, it’s almost certainly not just because you chose between the filtered and unfiltered ones.
There is a myriad of factors that determine what the EVOO tastes like. The producer, the type of olives used in production, the conditions in which the olives were grown, how ripe they were when picked, and last, but certainly not the least, the way olive oil in question was stored - all these factors influence olive oil aroma and flavor.
The simple truth is that we, as individuals, have wildly different palettes, and what is tasty to some can be absolutely tasteless to others. One way to find the EVOO you find truly delicious is to explore your options and pay attention to details that are important to you, personally.
Best Uses for Unfiltered Olive Oil
If you’ve yet to try incorporating unfiltered olive oil into your diet, you’re in luck! We have a carefully curated selection of premium unfiltered olive oils with different taste profiles you can try.
There are no specific designations when it comes to using unfiltered EVOO in the kitchen. Its properties are quite similar to good ol’ filtered olive oil not only taste-wise but also in use. So if you already have a few favorite recipes incorporating olive oil, that’s where you should start.
I’d risk saying that your first tasting should be when it’s fresh and uncooked to comprehend the flavor and aroma fully. Use it as a base for a sauce (with some balsamic vinegar and lemon juice). Drizzle over your salad. Or - better yet - grab some fresh ciabatta or baguette from your favorite bakery, rip it apart with your hands while still warm, and dip it right into the olive oil. Maybe add a little salt for an additional burst of flavor. If you like olive oil like that, you can say for sure - that’s the one for you.
And, of course, you can always use it to enhance the taste of whatever it is you’re cooking. Use it to pan-fry salmon until the skin is crispy, generously drizzle over vegetables before roasting, or add to your mashed potatoes along (or instead!) of butter!
The possibilities are truly endless.
How to Recognize High-Quality Unfiltered Olive Oil
The common belief is that the best olive oil comes from Italy, so people tend to assume that if their EVOO bottle has a “made in Italy” label slapped onto it, they’re in the clear.
There is a kernel of truth to that. Italy does produce some of the best olive oil in the world as of right now. It is, after all, where most olive oil is bottled.
But the label is no guarantee, so having information about how to distinguish whether the product you’re buying is genuinely worth paying for is always a must.
This information is critical when it comes to things like unfiltered olive oil and, particularly, olio nuovo. Their quality is, after all, a time-sensitive thing. And they can be hard to visually distinguish from lower quality products due to their opaque, hazy appearance.
Since the visuals usually can’t be trusted when it comes to unfiltered EVOO, smell and flavor will be your most significant indicators if something is off.
If olive oil has gone rancid (or worse, it has been diluted before bottling with either older olive oil that’s been sitting around since past harvest or soybean oil), it will have a heavier smell than quality olive oil. Some tend to describe it as waxy or reminiscent of crayons.
If the smell isn’t very distinctive and you can’t fully decide if it smells off, you’ll need to give the oil a little taste. Low-quality olive oil will be unpleasantly greasy and heavy compared to the quality stuff. While olive oil is known for typically having distinctive slightly bitter notes, bitterness will be more pronounced in the low-quality oil and, instead of adding richness to the flavor, will likely overpower it.
Another aspect those in the know say to pay attention to is the slight characteristic peppery burn the oil should have. The low-quality stuff will have no burn at all, or the burn will be more substantial than it should. It may also come with a rather unpleasant, somewhat metallic aftertaste.However, you can simply scour our selection of Italian olive oils for an easier time, and rest assured you’ll be getting a high-quality product worth your time.