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. 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 CR 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.
Look to the West
Our Ratings show that you don’t need to buy oil with an Italian heritage to experience the best. California, which produces about 3 percent of the olive oil consumed in the U.S., is the source of the only two products judged Excellent, one of which costs far less than the other: 35 cents per ounce compared with $1.73.
Three of the six Very Good oils also have a California pedigree. Only two are from olives grown in Italy. The other rated products contain olives from a mix of nations, such as Argentina, Greece, Italy, Morocco, Spain, Tunisia, and Turkey.
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.