Olive oil taste test

Consumer Reports

How to find the best extra-virgin olive oil

(Trader Joe’s California Estate oil)

Our taste tests show that some olive oils don’t make the grade.

Many “extra-virgin” olive oils, including some big names, don’t taste good enough to merit that description. By definition, extra-virgin olive oil is supposed to be flawless, but only the top nine of the 23 products our experts tried were free of flaws.

Consumer Reports purchased 138 bottles of extra-virgin olive oil from twenty-three manufacturers. The olive oil was sourced from a variety of countries including the U.S., Argentina, Greece, Chile and Italy.

More than half tasted fermented or stale. Two even tasted a bit like . . . let’s just say a barnyard. That problem can occur if oil is stored in vats containing sediment that has begun to ferment. The good news is that two products were excellent; one of those is a Consumer Reports' Best Buy.

You may not be able to easily spot a dud. Most people don’t sip olive oil straight from a glass, as our experts did, and foods can mask imperfections. In addition, many consumers assume that olive oil should be a liquid version of the fruit they put in a salad or martini. Wrong. Superior oils are fresh and fragrant, with complex flavors of ripe and unripe fruit, grass, herbs, nuts, or butter, for starters. If you’re used to a particular product, you might not realize what you’re missing until you do your own side-by-side comparison. It’s like learning to appreciate and enjoy fine wine.

MORE AT COnsumer Reports

Several big name brands earn some of the lowest scores

The Consumer Reports' Ratings show that you don’t need to buy oil with an Italian heritage to experience the best.

Oils produced in California surpassed those with an Italian heritage in Consumer Reports' latest taste-tests of 23 extra-virgin varieties, which are supposed to represent the pinnacle of quality. McEvoy Ranch (grown on a 550-acre property in Petaluma) and Trader Joe's California Estate, both from California, earned the highest scores and were the only products deemed "Excellent."

(See also: 8 times you shouldn't pick the fat-free option)

Three of the six "Very Good" oils also have a California pedigree: B.R. Cohn, 365 Everyday Value (Whole Foods), and California Olive Ranch. O-Live & Co. is pressed from Chilean olives. Only Lucini Premium Select and Kirkland Signature (Costco) Select Toscano are from olives grown in Italy.

Three were designated Consumer Reports' Best Buys ─ Trader Joe's California Estate and Kirkland Signature Select Toscano (Costco) ─ both at 35 cents an ounce─and 365 Everyday Value 100% Californian Unfiltered from Whole Foods, at 38 cents an ounce. 

Well-known brands, including Bertolli, Crisco, Filippo Berio, Goya, and Mazola tasted somewhat stale and had a variety of other flaws. Botticelli and Capatriti were described as old-tasting and barnyardlike. Goya, a winner in past taste-tests, was somewhat pungent and slightly bitter this time around.

What’s extra-virgin, anyway?

In Europe, the International Olive Council, chartered by the United Nations, establishes standards and works to ensure that products labeled extra-virgin, the highest grade of oil, live up to their billing; the countries do the policing. According to the IOC, extra-virgin olive oil must meet strict chemical and organoleptic (taste and smell) standards, including low levels of acidity and ultraviolet-light absorption. (High levels suggest poor processing or deterioration.) It has been extracted from mashed fruit by mechanical means, not through the use of heat or chemicals, which can reduce flavor. It should have at least some fruitiness and be free of defects in flavor and aroma.

Consumer Reports recommends using the top-rated extra-virgin olive oils in ways that will show off their strong, complex, fresh taste ─ such as drizzling them over bread. Lesser products can be used in cooking, which can mask an unpleasant taste. 

Copyright © 2006-2012 Consumers Union of U.S., Inc. No reproduction, in whole or in part, without written permission.
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