Many “extra-virgin” olive oils — including big names such as Bertolli, Crisco, Fillipo Berio and Mazola — don’t taste good enough to merit that description, according to Consumer Reports.By definition, extra-virgin olive oil is supposed to be flawless, but only the top nine of the 23 products CR’s experts recently 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, both from California, were excellent: McEvoy Ranch and Trader Joe’s California Estate, a CR Best Buy at 35 cents an ounce. Two other Best Buys were Kirkland Signature Select Toscano (Costco), also 35 cents an ounce, and 365 Everyday Value 100 Percent Californian Unfiltered from Whole Foods, at 38 cents an ounce.
CR purchased 138 bottles of extra-virgin olive oil from 23 manufacturers. The olive oil was sourced from a variety of countries including the U.S., Argentina, Greece, Chile and Italy.
You may not be able to easily spot a dud. Most people don’t sip olive oil straight from a glass, as CR’s 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.
HOW TO CHOOSE, HOW TO USE
You can deep-fry or stir-fry in olive oil, use it in sauces, dip bread in it or mix it into salads, entrees — even ice cream. (California Olive Ranch suggests a scoop of vanilla topped off with olive oil and a few grains of sea salt.) Consider buying two olive oils: one for cooking and the other for drizzling.
— Cook in it. It’s a waste to fry with an expensive olive oil. High heat can destroy subtle flavors. You could even consider a nonvirgin olive oil, though CR found minimal price differences between that and extra-virgin.
— Drizzle it. Unlike neutral vegetable oils, olive oil imparts its own character to a dish, so think of it as a seasoning. Extra-virgin oils have nuances you won’t find elsewhere. Some people may be startled by a sharp, peppery bite from a robust oil such as McEvoy Ranch, which stands up to red meat, salad and cheese. The mellower Lucini Premium Select, with a citrus note, might pair better with delicate fish. But there are no rules. Try a few olive oils to find what you like.
— Keep it fresh. An unopened container of a high-quality olive oil may stay fresh for up to two years after it’s packed, though there will be a gradual falloff in flavor even if the bottle remains sealed. Once it’s opened, you can store olive oil, tightly capped, for months in any cool, dark place. (Heat, light and air can degrade the taste of olive oil and possibly its nutrients.) Oil can be refrigerated if you don’t use it often. It will liquefy quickly at room temperature. Oil will keep better in glass than in plastic, and the darker the bottle, the better. If you transfer oil from its container into a smaller bottle or dish for serving, don’t pour fresh oil on top of old, which increases the risk of rancidity.
Bottom line: Don’t believe every extra-virgin claim. Use McEvoy Ranch and Trader Joe’s in ways that show off their strong, complex, fresh taste — drizzled over bread, for example. It’s fine to use some of the lower-rated products in cooking.