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What’s New with Supermarket Extra-Virgin Olive Oil?

By Lisa McManus Published

There have been lots of changes in the olive oil world since we last tasted supermarket olive oil: Our previous winner swapped its source due to shortages, some brands are addressing quality in new ways, and a slew of more robust oils are hitting the shelves. We’ll help you navigate the supermarket aisles.

Faced with supermarket shelves teeming with choices, how do you decide which is the best extra-virgin olive oil to buy? Don’t give up and grab the cheapest bottle. We’ll help you do better than that without breaking the bank.

Great extra-virgin olive oil tastes fresh, fruity, and lively, whether its flavor is mild and buttery or grassy and peppery. When we recently tasted premium extra-virgin olive oils, we couldn’t rank them from best to worst—they were all excellent and as unique as fingerprints. Instead we provided descriptions of their flavors so you could pick the one that most appeals to you. By contrast, our experience with supermarket offerings has been a mixed bag. Often, these products are made of a blend of bulk-purchased commodity oils, so their flavors are not particularly fresh or distinctive. In other words, when low price is the goal, flavor takes a back seat. In our previous tasting of supermarket olive oils, we did find one that tasted fresher and fruitier than the others, but recently its manufacturer, California Olive Ranch, changed the way it sources and produces its oil (more on that later), so we went back to the drawing board.

We whisked each oil into a vinaigrette and tasted it on salad greens—one of our favorite applications.

We bought 11 of the top-selling extra-virgin olive oils that are nationally available in supermarkets, including four labeled “robust”—these are recent introductions from some olive oil producers that are purportedly heartier in flavor than their supermarket extra-virgin options (see “Robust or Bust?”). We sampled all 11 oils in random order in three blind tastings: plain, in a simple vinaigrette on lettuce, and drizzled over warm white beans. We also sent a set of the oils in unmarked, randomly numbered bottles to a group of independent expert tasters trained in olive oil analysis to get their impressions, but we did not take their comments into account when determining our rankings.

Three Things Olive Oil Experts Wish Consumers Knew

We spoke with a variety of olive oil experts, including Alexandra Kicenik Devarenne, author of Olive Oil: A Field Guide, and asked them what they wish consumers knew about this ingredient.

 

Bitterness Is a Good Thing

Olives are naturally bitter, so bitterness in olive oil is a positive attribute. It can accentuate and enhance flavors in your dishes, so don’t be scared of it. Like pungency, it signals the presence of healthy compounds. The European Union permits product labels to claim there are health benefits associated with the polyphenols that cause bitter, pungent flavors.

Use It When Cooking

Cooking with an inexpensive supermarket extra-virgin olive oil and finishing and dressing with a better-quality extra-virgin olive oil is a thrifty way to go. The heat of sautéing or roasting will make minor flaws in a lesser-quality oil disappear, so using it for cooking is fine. And don’t worry about smoke point: In the test kitchen, we found that with a smoke point of 410 degrees, extra-virgin olive oil is fine for most cooking applications, even frying.

Don’t Let It Sit for Too Long 

Olive oil is a perishable product. Good-quality extra-virgin olive oil, properly packaged and stored in a cool, dark place, will be good for two years at least, but use it within a month or two once it’s opened. And if an oil is rancid when you open it before the “best by” date (its smell may remind you of stale nuts, crayons, or putty), don’t use it—and consider taking it back to the store for a refund.   

Experts Gave Low Marks to Most of the Supermarket Oils

Olive oil quality is judged in two ways: lab testing and expert tasting. Even if an oil passes lab tests for quality standards that were set by the International Olive Council, expert tasters must detect no flavor defects and some fruitiness for it to be classified as extra-virgin grade. The tasters are trained to recognize typical flavor flaws that indicate problems. These problems could include the olives not being in peak condition when they were picked and starting to ferment before they were pressed or the oil itself turning rancid. The tasters also note each oil’s “olive-fruitiness,” bitterness, and pungency; these are positive flavor characteristics that are present to varying degrees in fresh olive oil. 

In general, the expert olive oil tasters were not impressed by the oils we bought at the supermarket, considering all but two as “virgin” or even lower quality. A “virgin” classification is below extra-virgin and means that the oils have some slight flaws in flavor, disqualifying them from the top category of extra-virgin. The expert tasters also found several of the other oils to be seriously flawed. 

What’s That Peppery Aftertaste?

While tasting the extra-virgin olive oils in our lineup, we often found ourselves coughing in reaction to the peppery aftertaste of a few of the samples, especially during the plain tasting. That tingling, slightly numbing sensation in the back of the throat is normal when tasting olive oils. 

 

Extra-virgin olive oil contains oleocanthal, a naturally occurring phenolic compound that contains antioxidants and shares the anti-inflammatory properties of ibuprofen, according to scientists at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. This sensation is called “pungency” among professional olive oil tasters, and it’s considered a desirable trait, along with “olive-fruitiness” and bitterness. These three characteristics are present to varying degrees in every extra-virgin olive oil. 

 

Pepperiness is far more prominent in oils that are pressed from greener, less-ripe olives. The antioxidants in peppery oil are not only good for your health but also work to help preserve the freshness of the oil by fighting oxidation, which causes it to turn rancid. What’s more, its anti-inflammatory effects are one of the reasons that scientists believe the Mediterranean diet, which is olive oil–rich, is so healthy. 

 

If an extra-virgin olive oil’s pepperiness sometimes bothers you, consider trying a milder, later-harvest option. But don’t give up on oils with a peppery aftertaste: We find that peppery oil’s extra “kick” works surprisingly well to complement and enhance the flavor of many dishes—and when eaten with food, it won’t make you cough.

We had our tasters sip olive oil from blue cups in the plain tasting to mask the color of the samples, a trick we learned from expert olive oil tasters. This helps tasters judge the oils on flavor, since color is not an indicator of olive oil quality.

Two Oils Topped Our Ratings

Our tasters were more forgiving than the trained olive oil experts. We decided that all the oils were acceptable. That said, our ratings were in the middle-to-lower end of our “recommended” range of scores; we recommended one with reservations. Tasters described oils in the bottom half of our rankings as bland, saying that they didn’t add much to the salad or beans. The lowest-ranked oil had an aftertaste that tasters described as harsh and metallic. While all the oils were well within their “best by” dates, not all tasted fresh. 

While we were hopeful that oils labeled “robust” would give us more flavorful choices at the supermarket, that was not the case across the board. The highest-rated “robust” oil, which landed third in our overall rankings, was described as having a “peppery, green punch,” but the three others struck our tasters as harsh and “too strong” rather than more pleasantly full-flavored. While we appreciate that there are now more flavor profiles of extra-virgin olive oil available in supermarkets, overall we didn’t feel that this category of oils added much to the mainstream selection. 

Robust or Bust?

Some olive oil manufacturers have recently brought to market “robust” versions that they tout as having more assertive flavor profiles than their standard extra-virgin oils. “We launched this within the past year,” explained Lisa Pandolfini, vice president of marketing at Borges S.A., the parent company that produces Star Olive Oil. “Descriptions help consumers understand how to use the oils. Our robust has more of a bite to it,” she said. Similarly, other brands in our lineup have begun promoting a variety of flavor intensities in their olive oils. Since in previous tastings we’ve felt that supermarket extra-virgin olive oil was fairly bland, we were hopeful that this meant there would be more flavorful choices at the grocery store. Overall, this wasn’t the case.

 

But we did find two oils that we liked in every application, and they tied for the top spot, scoring a distinct notch above the rest of the pack with flavors that struck us as fresher, fruitier, and brighter than the other selections. They were the same two oils the expert panel chose as the best in the bunch and the only two that experts felt truly deserved to be called extra-virgin.

Why Harvest Dates Matter

Olive oil is a seasonal crop, and the harvest date tells you how fresh it is. In our lineup, only Bertolli, California Olive Ranch, and Lucini listed a harvest date on their bottles. This is something usually seen only on premium olive oil where the growing, pressing, and processing of the oil is closely controlled by the manufacturer, like fine vintage wines.

 

Olive oil makers pick olives at the stage of ripeness that will yield the flavor they’re looking for. Greener, less-ripe olives make grassier, more pungent, and peppery oil, while black, fully ripe olives produce much milder, more buttery oil, with less peppery aftertaste. In the northern hemisphere—including Europe, North Africa, and the United States—olives start to ripen in September and the season finishes in February or March, so producers harvest and press olives during those months; in the southern hemisphere—including South America and Australia—olives ripen in the opposite months, so the harvest runs from March to July. The oil is stored in stainless-steel tanks and filtered to remove tiny olive particles. (If the particles are left in, the oil spoils faster. You can buy unfiltered oil, usually from small producers, but you need to use it up quickly.) 

 

What does this mean for you? Oil can be stored in steel tanks for many months—or years— before it is bottled, and the “best by” date printed on the label is two years after that. By contrast, a harvest date tells you when the fruit was pressed, so it’s easier to gauge its freshness. 

 

The freshest, newest crop of premium olive oil from the northern hemisphere is bottled and sent to stores by late spring or early summer (it takes six weeks to ship from Europe) and would have the prior year as the harvest date on the bottle. You’ll often find the older vintage oils (from the year before that) on sale around this time as retailers seek to clear shelves. If it’s a good oil and was stored well, it will taste fine—so you may get a real bargain. 

 

That said, because most supermarket oils are made up of several oils harvested over months across different countries, a specific harvest date is harder to set. California Olive Ranch’s Destination Series bottles may have a harvest date, but the company lists two full years, such as 2017–2018, given that the oil now comes from a blend of oils from both hemispheres. In the past, the company indicated a single harvest year for its California-grown oil. Our co-winner from Bertolli listed a specific month and year on its bottle and printed a list of all possible countries of origin on the label while also indicating which sources were in that particular bottle. As a result, we knew that the oil we tasted had been harvested from four northern hemisphere countries six months earlier.

 

The Best Supermarket Olive Oils: California Olive Ranch and Bertolli

Our top two choices are California Olive Ranch Destination Series Everyday Extra Virgin Olive Oil and Bertolli Extra Virgin Olive Oil, Original, Rich Taste. These oils had a similar crowd-pleasing flavor profile that was bright and medium-fruity, with a lightly peppery aftertaste. We were disappointed that California Olive Ranch discontinued our previous favorite California-grown oil, but we found that the replacement was a good flavor match for the discontinued oil. California Olive Ranch built its reputation on California-grown olives planted in high-density hedges that could be quickly machine-harvested at their peak and pressed within hours. But the state could not produce enough olives to meet demand, so, according to a company spokesperson, the company found sources in Portugal, Chile, and Argentina that grow and harvest the same type of olives in the same way. It then imports these oils to blend and bottle them in California with a small amount of local oil.    

The Bertolli oil was a pleasant surprise. When we last tasted supermarket extra-virgin olive oil four years ago, Bertolli’s offering ranked dead last; tasters called it “flat” and “dull.” What changed? We spoke to the executive director of the North American Olive Oil Association, Joseph R. Profaci, who said that Bertolli has been making a push to improve quality. Other signs of the changes: In 2017, Bertolli named a new CEO and vice president of sales for its North American operations. And the oil, with a redesigned label, is now sold in a dark green bottle instead of a clear one, which helps block light that can degrade oil. Like the California Olive Ranch product, this oil now lists a harvest date on the bottle (see “Why Harvest Dates Matter”). In fact, it was the most recently harvested oil in our lineup. All these changes contributed to a bright, fruity, fresh-tasting oil that our tasters appreciated in every application.

Taste Test Extra-Virgin Olive Oil

There have been lots of changes in the olive oil world since we last tasted supermarket olive oil: Our previous winner swapped its source due to shortages, some brands are addressing quality in new ways, and a slew of more robust oils are hitting the shelves. We’ll help you navigate the supermarket aisles.