These days, choosing an olive oil can be as confusing as choosing a wine. At most good grocery stores, you’re likely to find multiple varieties, at multiple price points. To sort through some of the confusion, we compared a few of these oils with a few simple rules: only extra virgin and under thirty dollars a pop. One of the main challenges for our group of non-expert but food loving and olive oil-using panelists: in a blind taste test, could we distinguish the cheap from the not-so-cheap?
The results were surprising, even to us.
Stonehouse Estate Blend, Oroville, CA
$20 for 500 milliliters
This olive oil is produced in California and is a mix of green, blush, and black olives, which is supposed to create a rich, round oil. Our tasters overwhelmingly liked this light green oil, and thought that it had a nice olive flavor at first bite, followed by a light grassy finish. “Earthy” was one word used to describe the taste, and we liked the bite of pepper on the finish. Our panelists thought this would work well as an all-purpose oil, the light flavor going well with salads, pastas, and as a finishing oil. Available online at Stonehouse Olive Oil.
Terre Nostre, Montalbano, Italy
$11.99 for 500 milliliters
Made from a small cooperative farm in Montalbano, this extra virgin olive oil finishes with a strong peppery finish on the back of the tongue. It’s heavier than the Stonehouse and some of our panelists weren’t too keen on the bitterness. We agreed that this oil is better used as a dipping oil, as its strong flavor might overwhelm mild dishes. But for something where you want a strong, bitter, and peppery flavor, this oil would work well. Available online at A.G. Ferrari.
Orcio Sannita, Campania, Italy
$25.99 for 500 milliliters
This certified organic oil from Campania is an artisanal oil produced by a farm in the foothills in Italy. The color is more yellow than the others oils tasted. Our tasters found this oil to be mild and less bitter than the brands. Some found it bland on the front end with a strong, bitter aftertaste. There was also a slightly peppery finish. We primarily thought this would work well as a dipping oil. Overall, this was one of the least liked olive oils. Available online at A.G. Ferrari.
Colonna, Molise, Italy
$15.95 for 250 milliliters
This unfiltered oil, which comes in a pretty bottle, is made with three different types of olives. Golden in color, our tasters found this oil to be quite bitter, with a range of flavors that seemed overpowering to our palettes. Definitely best as a dipping oil, as the intense flavors would easily overpower a light vegetable dish, although it would be ideal for a stronger flavored sauce. Overall, our tasters liked this one the least. Available in-store at Williams Sonoma.
Mazola, Mixed Origin
$5.99 for 500 milliliters
I threw this one in to determine if we knew what we were doing. Surprisingly, we didn’t! Not that Mazola can’t make a good oil, but one that competes with artisanal, hand-crafted oils? This oil was well-liked by all and one of the favorites. Our tasters found that this oil had a grassy, green, and light flavor that was bright and crisp. It wasn’t as bitter as the others we tasted, though it did have a nice peppery kick at the end. The flavor was well-rounded. Our tasters thought it would work well on salad, tomatoes, and pastas … a good overall oil. Available at Walgreen’s and major grocers.
Perhaps, as with our dark chocolate tasting, the intensely bitter and strong flavors just didn’t taste that great to our untrained palettes. Flavors that we’re not accustomed to—that professional tasters would find pleasing—just weren’t. And maybe this shouldn’t be surprising. A paper published in First Press, a newsletter produced by University of California Cooperative Extension, states that “the three primary positives [of extra virgin olive] are fruitiness, pungency, and bitterness … it is probably a little tough for most Americans to adjust to, but bitterness and pungency are regarded as positive characteristics of olive oil.” Hmmm … I would say those two flavors definitely detracted from some of our oils.
But does this taste test mean you should just stick with the cheap stuff and save yourself a twenty? I’m not so sure. I read about olive oil adulteration—mixing cheaper oils or adding flavoring agents to bad olive oil and labeling them as EVOO—in an article in the New Yorker by Tom Mueller. In an interview with NPR, he says the best way to ensure you’re getting the real thing is to know the producer. In the case of the more expensive oils in the tasting, you could easily find out, via the Internet, exactly where these oils were made, and in many cases, the person who made them. As for Mazola, the back of the bottle simply stated that they were made from a mix of oils from Spain, Italy, Turkey, and Tunisia. He goes on to say that price will also tip you off to a fake: for most imports, anything under ten dollars for half a liter was “suspect.” Uh-oh. But the final verdict, he says, is taste. You’re supposed to be able to pick up the peppery, slightly bitter, and fruity flavors of a good oil, while bad oil would taste rancid or “cooked,” with a meaty flavor or just a bland flavor.
In the end, it seems like olive oil is more like wine than I thought—buy what you like, price be damned!