A simple trip to any grocery store is proof enough that there are plenty of olive oils to choose from. If you’re searching for a good, everyday olive oil that you can have at the ready for a variety of uses, California Olive Ranch Everyday Extra Virgin Olive Oil ($10-$13 for 500 mL) is the choice we recommend.
Why you should believe me
I received a diploma in Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts while living in the culinary mecca of Portland, Oregon. I earned that diploma to be trained professionally and do this: explore, research and write knowledgeably about the food world. I’ve written for TastingTable.com, Culinate.com, The International Association of Culinary Professionals, Barnes & Noble and a few others.
For this article, I reached out to experts, referred to printed and online resources and gathered my self-professed food-obsessed friends for our own tasting in order to select the best option for you.
How we selected
The road to deciding our pick was the result of weeks of research that started with online searches of olive oil taste tests and viewing which oils won in international competitions. We then got familiar with olive oil organizations, uncovering reputable websites and books, speaking with credible experts in the field and confirming a few of the top picks through our own tasting panel.
Finding taste tests in online publications was actually pretty simple. Sites that identified their olive oil picks included Good Housekeeping, Consumer Research, Huffington Post, Real Simple, America’s Test Kitchen, Kitchen Daily and Serious Eats. Other sites weighed in by noting top sellers through their online stores: Dean and Deluca, Amazon, iGourmet and eHow. Though some of the taste tests were simple, consulting a variety of them gave us insight into some common top picks.
What to look for
First off, does it have to be extra virgin? Yes.
The basics: extra virgin is olive oil at its purest and highest quality. Virgin and light olive oils are refined and thus stripped of many qualities, including their oh-so-important health benefits. You’re going to get the best flavor as well as those health benefits with extra virgin olive oil, so it’s your best bet.
Darrell Corti, Chairman of the Los Angeles International Olive Oil Competition says, “Extra Virgin Olive Oil means it’s at its purest. Virgin oil tells you it’s an oil that is made properly, but may have a slight defect.”
The Olive Oil Times adds, “In order for an oil to qualify as ‘extra virgin’ the oil must also pass both an official chemical test in a laboratory and a sensory evaluation by a trained tasting panel recognized by the International Olive Council. The olive oil must be found to be free from defects while exhibiting some fruitiness.”
What does that mean to you? If an olive oil has “extra virgin” on the label, it has passed strict requirements that would allow it to hold the title. (Important: in the book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil author Tom Mueller uncovers a corrupt side of olive oil production—what reads on the label isn’t necessarily what’s in the bottle. To help ensure you’re getting quality oil, searching for bottles that have a certification logo from a reputable olive oil association or council can eliminate any uncertainty.)
There’s often debate as whether or not to use extra virgin during high-heat cooking as it’s believed that its monounsaturated fatty acids are damaged when cooking at temperatures well above 480 degrees Fahrenheit (250 degrees Celsius). But more on that below.
Shawn Addison, owner of the Olive Oil Source and former member of the Board of Directors for the California Olive Oil Council, and Tom Mueller, author of “Extra Virginity” as mentioned above and founder of TruthInOliveOil.com, weighed in through phone interviews to share their thoughts.
Shawn Addison said you doesn’t always have to use extra virgin, and advises that certain cooking methods should go with a regular virgin oil. “For sautéing, don’t use an $18 bottle of extra virgin olive oil; use a virgin oil instead.” While searching sites and gathering info we did come across others that had similar thoughts. The reasoning: when using olive oil at such high heat, flavor fades as do some of the health benefits, so why use up the higher-priced variety in this fashion?
Tom Mueller says there’s no reason to use a regular olive oil. “The health benefits of extra virgin are so important, anything downgraded isn’t worth it.”
What are the qualities of a good olive oil?
“Freshness is the number one key, meaning how quickly the fruit was milled,” said Addison. “It’s important that the fruit arrives quickly from orchard to mill and that it arrives in good condition.”
Olives that are hand-picked and processed into oil within hours (or at least the same day that they were picked) is key. It’s tough to find it listed on bottles in a local grocery store, but some will actually reveal the harvest date. This is a great indication of how fresh the oil is. And, unlike wine, olive oil does not get better with age.
Tom Mueller agreed on the fresh factor. “The key thing people need to get is that olive oil is fruit juice.” He says to think of fresh-squeezed fruit juices. “That doesn’t get better with age, right? So unlike, say wine, olive oil doesn’t get better as it ages. Purchasing an olive oil that showcases the harvest date on the label is going to give you valuable info as to how fresh it is.”
Do I need different kinds of olive oil for dipping, dressing and frying?
When it comes to dipping and dressing, not necessarily. That’s a question we considered while putting this guide together. We wanted to recommend something that could be used for multiple food adventures.
Generally, if you’re looking for an olive oil for bread dipping, you definitely want a selection that’s more bold with stand-out olive and pepper flavor and that coats the tongue nicely without a greasy feel. Being able to really taste the olives and pungency is especially important if you want to mix it with a balsamic vinegar and maybe fresh-ground black pepper, make a vinaigrette with some lemony acids and maybe herbs, or drizzle over a bowl of fresh pasta with tomatoes and mozzarella. If you’re mixing it with a lot of other food items, you just want to make sure you can still taste that fabulous, fresh olive oil flavor.
With frying, it’s a bit of a different story, and one that’s still up for debate, as mentioned above. In digging deeper into thoughts on deep-frying with extra virgin olive oil, we came across more opinions that say yes, it’s fine to do so.
But Angela Bell with the Olive Oil Times had a different experience. She disagrees, calling the common thoughts that you can’t fry with olive oil a myth.
In the oft-cited book On Food and Cooking, author Harold McGee sheds light on the structure of fats and oils and what happens when heat is applied. He says, “natural fats and oils are triglycerides, a combination of three fatty acid molecules with one molecule of glycerol.” The glycerol is a carbon chain that provides a frame that the fatty acids can attach to. McGee continues to say that most fats begin to decompose and their structure breaks down at temperatures well below their boiling points. This point at which fats break down is called a “smoking point.” When a fat gets to this point, it can emit an unpleasant aroma, affect the flavor of the food you’re cooking, and, as just mentioned, lose its original structure (meaning you’re not getting the full benefit of the product). In regards to EVOO, this breakdown can contribute to loss of important health benefits the oil brings to our diet. “The smoke point depends on the initial fatty free fatty acid content of the fat; the lower the free fatty acid content, the more stable the fat, and the higher the smoke point,” McGee writes. Standards for extra virgin olive oil require it has a free fatty acid content of less than .8%. For comparison, the standard for coconut oil is .2% maximum.
The International Olive Oil Council states that smoking point for olive oil is 410°F (210°C), which the council goes on to say is “well above the ideal temperature for frying food [360°F, or 180°C].” Finally, the maker of our own pick, California Olive Ranch, states that “Yes You Can” fry with extra virgin olive oil.
The verdict: yes, you can fry with extra virgin olive oil. Our suggestion is to try it, see what you think of the flavor and decide for yourself if you prefer to use your favorite bottle in that fashion.
Here’s a handy chart on cooking with oils that we came across in our research. It was a team effort between Andrew Wilder of the Eating Rules blog and Andy Bellati, MS, RD, a Vegas-based registered dietician and author of the site Small Bites. It can be a handy little guide if you want to dive more into good cooking uses for various oils.
What should the flavor be like?
Olive oil should, of course, taste of fresh olives. It should also host notes of bitterness, pungency (pepperiness) and fruitiness in balance. No one flavor should overpower the others.
When searching for a favorite bottle of olive oil, there were common themes that appeared in what stood out in terms of aroma and taste with most taste testers:
Appearance/color (dark green/yellow) – Each expert we talked to (and sources that even bothered to bring up color at all) said it had nothing to do with the flavor of the oil.
Aroma – olive, lemon, grassy, floral, fruity
Overall flavor – olive, peppery, bitter, fruity, lemon, grassy
Aftertaste – bitterness, nutty, peppery
Tasting fashion – (Do you sip straight from a spoon or dip with bread?) True experts taste by straight sipping/slurping from a glass jar when the olive oil is heated to 20 or 25 degrees Celsius.
Best for cooking, dipping, using as a dressing? Most judges weighed in on specific uses.
Are there regions that consistently produce the best olive oils?
“California and Australia are producing great olive oils right now,” said Addison. He also noted that Spain and Italy can be counted on due to more years of experience and older trees that produce more old-world oils.
Mueller, who happens to reside in Italy, does prefer Italian oils. He said “Sicily has had the best quality improvements over the years” and attributes this to generational shifts in family-run olive orchards. He also says Tuscany and Puglia are producing oils at a whole new level. Umbria and Spain are also on the list, but he says it also depends on the year.
But we wanted to get deeper into what the olive oil industry, organizations, competitions and key experts thought. Major sources that led us further were World’s Best Olive Oils, International Olive Council, Los Angeles Extra Virgin Olive Oil Competition, Terraolivo, Olive Oil Source and TruthInOliveOil. The world of olive oil is deep and very international.
Digging into competitions and olive oil organizations unveiled a few things: namely the must-haves for an olive oil that’s entered into a competition, testing criteria and the key components to look for in picking a great olive oil.
Testing standards can become very high level, such as “COI/T.20/DOC. NO 25 – 2006 GLOBAL METHOD FOR THE DETECTION OF EXTRANEOUS OILS IN OLIVE OILS”, a standard used in testing from the International Oil Council. For our guidelines, we went with something more straightforward but still from the International Olive Council, and that was in step with what judging from online sites used.
Narrowing the selection
We had information from experts, olive oil organizations and online taste tests that pointed us in a good direction about what to think about when picking a great olive oil, as well as some brands that were favorites. We noticed, however, that many of the reviews were basic and just touched on flavors and what uses they’d recommend. Because most of the reviews were short and sweet, we decided to do our own taste tests to confirm common findings.
The decision for narrowing down which oils to test was a bit of a challenge, but with the help of a large spreadsheet and verdicts from other taste tests, we made it happen.
Discovering which oils won in international competitions was interesting research. The number of oils that are judged and that win awards can be mind-blowing. For this guide, however, we really wanted to focus on oils that were accessible to most of you out there and readily available in your local grocery stores. We started by reviewing olive oils that not only came up most in online taste tests but also received praise more than once. Those that received additional mentions, with separate awards and good ratings by other users on online sites (i.e. Amazon), were an additional factor.
With this process, the chosen brands were cut down to 12. And for our own personal taste test, we decided to slice the amount we would taste to six. Why six? It just felt like a good number, and one that would be manageable for our tasters to get through while still being able to offer up a clear opinion.
A final check looked at expert sources. Conveniently, one of our sources, Mueller, has a section on his site Truth In Olive Oil where he lists his top picks for supermarket olive oils. Out of our initial 12, three and a half were on his list, so that was easy to add to our six. Also, he mentioned Whole Foods 365 California blend as one of his picks. We actually went with the Whole Foods 365 Italian variety for our testing.
Our taste test
We gathered seven foodie friends for an afternoon al fresco to sip on six different oils.
The criteria we based our tastings on followed the basic guidelines from the International Olive Council and were straightforward. The steps went as follows:
1. Oils were each placed in a glass jar.
2. The temperature of the oils were kept between 20 and 25 degrees Celsius.
3. Each oil for each taster was labeled to help tasters with organization on their rating sheets.
4. Each sheet consisted of rating each oil on a scale of 0 to 10 for flavor, thoughts on the aroma of each oil and what they would use it for: dipping bread into, on a salad, cooking with?
Tasters slurped directly from their glasses and were also given some bread to dip into the oil. Sliced apples, also a suggestion in standard taste testing, were provided to cleanse our palates.
Flavors we focused on rating included fruitiness, pepperiness (pungency), lemon, bitterness, nutty, grassy and olive. Of course, tasters were able to jot down any other flavors they thought of.
Our verdict? California Olive Ranch actually came in as a close 2nd in our taste test. Whole Foods’ 365 Italian Olive Oil ended up the favorite in the taste test.
So why recommend California Olive Ranch Everyday Extra Virgin Olive Oil, even if it wasn’t our taste test favorite?
Its flavor is well-balanced and versatile for your multiple uses. It’s been highly rated by multiple institutions, including the Terraolivo competition, which listed the Arbequina selection the only U.S. brand on its Gold list in 2011. It’s got the quality you need, and California Olive Ranch bares it all right on the label: California Olive Oil Council-approved, non-GMO verified, and the grower gives you the harvest date, which tells you exactly how fresh it is. Not all oils do this. In fact, most you find in a grocery store do not.
Finally, California Olive Ranch’s Extra Virgin Olive Oil is readily available in just about any local grocery store at around $10 – $13 a bottle. Our bottle was actually a little cheaper at $8.89 for 500 mL. Whole Foods had it for $9.99.
And it still scored very well in our taste test, coming second.
Who else likes it?
Tom Mueller, on his site TruthInOliveOil.com, mentions California Olive Ranch in his list of good grocery store picks. Though he speaks of the brand’s entire line, he does note that the “Everyday” olive oil is the company’s best-seller, with a flexible flavor profile.
Good Housekeeping rated it as its top “Bargain,” stating “This ‘very mellow,’ ‘light’ tasting oil has an almost sweet ‘nuttiness’ and a ‘fruity’ scent reminiscent of green olives.” They also said this olive oil is a great option for those seeking a more mild, everyday oil.
Consumer Research voted California Olive Ranch’s “Arbequina” blend the best American Olive Oil.
Real Simple Magazine online voted it best budget and best for cooking, stating “This all-American picked wowed testers with its smooth, subtle taste—think gentle apple notes with a hint of spice.”
America’s Test Kitchen voted the California Olive Ranch Arbequina blend best among California Olive Oils. Again, positive feedback within the family tells us the variety from California Olive consistently produces highly-rated oils.
And, it’s on the Amazon bestsellers list.
Pompeian – ($12.99, Amazon, 16 oz.) Pompeian was actually a number one favorite on AOL Kitchen Daily and Cooking Light. America’s Test Kitchen recommended it, though with reservations. Our tasting panel thought this one was the most mild. That definitely didn’t mean it was bad, but it didn’t wow us either. Also, Pompeian is certified by the North American Olive Oil Association.
Colavita – ($5.99, Amazon, 8.5 oz.) Colavita received a thumbs up from the Huffington Post as well as America’s Test Kitchen. It made it on Serious Eats’ list as most expensive and just “so-so”. In our taste test, this one was rated as the strongest in pungency and bitterness, and caused most testers to cough post-slurp. Despite that, one tester said she’d happily use it. Colavita also wears the CERMET Certified Product seal. If you can handle a more bold, strong oil, this may be a good choice for you.
O-Live - O-Live is produced by the Chilean producer Olisur. It’s still a bit new to the market when you look at the big picture of oils out there. The brand O-Live was launched in May 2011. Even so, the label has won multiple awards. And, something that stood out in the selection was that O-Live guarantees 2-hour freshness right on the label. You can even view the company’s 2-hour freshness video here. It won the Editor’s Pick in Good Housekeeping’s online taste test. In our tasting panel, O-Live was a favorite for one out of five. It has a good balance and can be used for multiple applications.
Lucini – ($21.59, Amazon, 17 oz.) – Lucini was our higher-end selection. And ours actually cost $16.99 at our local store. It’s received high customer ratings on Amazon, and most recently won Gold at the 2013 New York International Olive Oil Competition. It also was recommended by America’s Test Kitchen‘s online test. It’s a fabulous oil and a great choice for those willing to spend a little more on their weekly shopping trip. You can’t go wrong.
Whole Foods 365 Extra Virgin Italian Olive Oil – ($7.99, Whole Foods, 1 Liter) – We won’t lie, the Whole Foods bottle actually won in our own taste test. It’s a fantastic selection and the price is unbeatable. It’s certified by the North American Olive Oil Association, and tested for quality by International Olive Council standards. We steered away from it as the top pick mainly due to availability; it’s only available at Whole Foods, which may be inconvenient for some. It was named Best Budget oil from Consumer Research, and received a thumbs up from Serious Eats. And Yahoo.com Voices calls it “indispensable.” If you’re a Whole Foods addict, you won’t regret selecting this bottle on your next trip.
Wrapping it up
The next time you’re searching the aisle at your favorite shop, look for the California Olive Ranch bottle. The $9-$13 you spend will be well worth it for all of your olive oil needs. Want to expand your knowledge or graduate into more expensive brands? A local olive oil specialty shop can guide you with expert tasters and buyers who host tastings, and you’ll have the ability to speak one-on-one with those who’ve been deep in the business for years.
Author, TruthInOliveOil.com & Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil,
"This “very mellow,” “light” tasting oil has an almost sweet “nuttiness” and a “fruity” scent reminiscent of green olives. With just a “little bite,” this olive oil is a great option for those seeking a more mild, everyday oil."
"Best American Olive Oil, Arbequina blend"
Best Budget and Best for Cooking. "California Olive Ranch Fresh California Extra Virgin This all-American pick wowed testers with its smooth, subtle taste—think gentle apple notes with a hint of spice."
Arbequina blend: "Full, fruity olive flavor and little bitterness or pungency. “Lovely, nutty, and fruity,” with notes of “lemon,” “vanilla,” and “honey.” “Quite buttery and round and almost sweet,” tasters raved. “The aftertaste is fresh, pure olive.”