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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.