Buying a new olive oil is always a little bit tricky. Is more expensive really better? And what does better mean, anyway? Our friends at America’s Test Kitchen have revisited these questions. Our Managing Producer Sally Swift talked with Jack Bishop, Chief Creative Officer at ATK, about their deep dive taste test.
Sally Swift: You recently did a tasting of extra virgin olive oil. The spendy stuff, not the supermarket stuff.
Jack Bishop: We did a tasting of supermarket oils about a year ago and I only liked one of the ten oils. Most of them had very little character. They didn't have much flavor; they had some defects. We did chemical, as well as sensory, analysis and we were underwhelmed. We said, “There's one that we liked from the supermarket, but what if you're willing to go to a gourmet shop or go online to buy a higher quality oil?” The difference was amazing. This time, ten oils; we liked every single oil that we tasted.
SS: What makes the quality different between supermarket oils and the premium ones that you tasted?
JB: The difference is that supermarket oils, largely, are industrial products sourced from oils that are blendid together in a factory. In some cases they've got oils from all over the world – Tunisia, Italy, Spain, as opposed to the high-end stuff as an artisanal product. They are growing the olives, pressing them, and bottling them, all at the same location. It reflects the climate, the terroir of the place where the olives are grown. Much more personality and flavor.
SS: Like wine?
JB: It’s just like wine. And it’s not just in the tasting. Again, we sent out all these high-end oils for chemical analysis. You could look for levels of free fatty acids, peroxides, signs that something went wrong either in the processing or in the maintaining of the oil. The chemical analysis came back; they were well above the standards set by the international body that governs oils. Plus, supermarket oils either were right on the line or below the line of what you would be looking for from a chemical perspective for defects.
SS: In this rare instance, it's worth the money. We're getting what we pay for.
JB: You get what you pay for. This was good news that we liked every single oil that we tasted. Rather than our usual ranking of our favorite to least favorite, we grouped them into four different flavor categories. People can navigate their own way to find the oil that works best for the dish that they are making or more likely by how their palate is constructed.
SS: That's an interesting way to do it. Of course, everyone's palate is so different. Do you have a way of figuring out what kind of oil style you would be interested in?
JB: We came up with a clever way of thinking about this. The big issue is how peppery and spicy the oil is. We thought: if you are somebody who likes Chardonnay, if you drink beer and want a lager, and if you are someone who likes those mild salad greens, you should be getting an oil from what we call either the mild or the medium categories. They have almost no pepperiness or just a hint of pepperiness. Now, if you’re somebody on the other end of the spectrum, who loves espresso, bitter IPAs, and chilis, you should be getting a medium/robust or just a robust oil. Where the first and the last thing you taste is all about the spice and pepperiness.
SS: It sure is.
JB: We found oils that fell into each of these four categories and made recommendations for people. Whether you're somebody who wants a peppery oil or if you're somebody who wants a buttery oil, we've got choices for you in each group.
SS: Can you go through your recommendations for the mild oils?
JB: Again, there are hundreds of oils that fall into this category. We found one from France and one from Portugal that fell into this mild category that we liked quite a lot. They are available online; most of these oils are not readily available in supermarkets. The Portuguese oil was Casa de Santo and the French oil was Moulin Castelas.
SS: What about the medium?
JB: We loved this Greek oil which was probably the biggest crowd pleaser. The brand name is Gaea and it had everything you want in olive oil. The other in the medium category was Columela, which is a Spanish oil that is widely available. It's the one oil you can find in supermarkets on this list and we liked it a lot.
SS: Gaea's the least expensive of all the ones you've tasted.
JB: It was just over a buck an ounce, which in terms of these premium extra virgin oils is very reasonable.
SS: Give me a couple of picks of the robust.
JB: My favorite is the one from California in this category: the McEvoy Ranch, which is from Northern California. This is an olive oil that smacks you in the face, but in a good way. I'm somebody who likes espresso, IPAs, and chilis, so this is an oil that I love. Maybe not with delicate greens, but over a piece of grilled fish or a bowl of beans. This is an oil that says, “I'm here and I'm made of olives!” It's not just fat, it's flavor.
SS: Exactly. Can you talk about harvest dates? I think that's confusing for a lot of people.
JB: The number one thing is don't buy old oil. After 18 months from harvest, the oil begins to degrade. No matter how good it was to begin with, it's going downhill. Some bottles have a use by date. They could put a date that's three or four years out from bottling on there. You want to be looking for harvest dates. The harvest in the Northern Hemisphere runs from October to December. Ideally, you want to be looking for something from the most recent season. If it's February or March, you might not be getting the previous fall. But you're at the tail-end of an oil that's 14 or 16 months old. It’s still okay, but don't buy enough that it's going to last you a year, because you really don't want to be using an oil 18 months past harvest date. It’s important to look at that. It doesn't matter if it's a great oil. If it's an old oil it will not be worth the money.
SS: To be clear, the oils that you tasted were all from the Northern Hemisphere, right?
JB: That's correct. We wanted to standardize for harvest dates around the Mediterranean, as well as California oils, which are all harvested in that October-to-December window. All the oils that we tasted were the same age.
SS: It's funny, that Southern Hemisphere option is going to open things up for us soon. I hope a little bit more.
JB: There are going to be more oils coming from there. And there are so many more oils coming from California, every year you see more from there flooding American supermarkets.
SS: What do you use for your everyday oil?
JB: My house oil is the one supermarket oil that we liked, which is from California. It's a brand called California Olive Ranch and it’s widely available. It was one of the inexpensive oils, about half the price of these premium extra virgin olive oils that we tasted. I use it for cooking. Some people don't cook with extra virgin, but I don't want to keep a low-quality oil around just for cooking. I use it for sautéing and salads. I have a more expensive oil when I want to taste that oil, but the California Olive Ranch is very good day-to-day oil.