Best Cheap Olive Oil
Conventional wisdom holds that cheap olive oil works fine in a stir-fry or marinade, because the taste is either cooked out or combined with other, more prominent flavors. Salad dressings, freshly baked bread, and the like would seem to call for only the best olive oil. It's quite possible to go into a specialty or gourmet store -- even an olive oil boutique such as O & Co. (located on the East Coast, in Denver, and online) -- and drop $50 on a 500 ml bottle. We were curious to see, though, how cheap olive oils really stack up when they aren't cooked. To find out, we assembled 11 hungry people, five oils, and a pile of semolina bread slices. We found that the best olive oil for finishing salads or drizzling over pasta might not be most expensive. In a blind test, our panel of tasters favored relatively inexpensive Goya over higher-priced bottles.
Our Top Pick
Goya proclaims its extra virgin olive oil ($3.99 for 250 ml, or 47 cents per ounce, Amazon) bold and intense on its website, and tasters concurred in our Goya olive oil review. Panelists found that this brand had the most olive-y taste among our selections. They described it as "grassy" and said it seemed "greener" and "less filtered" than the other oils. At the same time, tasters in our Goya olive oil review did not find it heavy or cloying; rather, it was "light" and "lemony." While some said it would be "good for cooking with," others thought it best suited to a role that would highlight its flavor -- for instance, drizzled over fish or vegetables. One declared it delightful on bread (although it should be noted that this particular taster was crazy about the bread we used).
Goya olive oil has a single country of origin: It comes from Spanish olives. (Spain has actually surpassed Italy as the biggest exporter of olive oil, according to the web magazine Olive Oil Times.) Founded by Spanish immigrants to the United States, Goya has been feeding the Hispanic community for decades. Olive oil is one of the first products the company distributed.
Goya was one of the cheapest olive oils in our tasting, so it came as a bit of a surprise when the brand won the most votes from our panel. Tasters declared it equally good for cooking or for dipping.
Pompeian earned only one fewer first-place votes than our winner, Goya, but tasters expressed mixed feelings in our Pompeian olive oil review. Those who loved the oil said it "smelled light" and had a very nice "olive taste," with just a hint of the spiciness that was overpowering in some other cheap olive oils. Despite the fact that it was "not as extremely peppery," something lingered after the bread went down, and some testers in our olive oil review found that aftertaste a little too bitter and "sting-y." On the whole, though, this seemed to our tasters like a good all-around oil that would be equally at home in a saute pan and topping off cooked foods such as grilled meats.
Pompeian ($4.19 for 250 ml, also 50 cents per ounce, Amazon) touts its Tuscan heritage but also embraces the variety of countries from which it selects the olive oils that make up this blend. The company's website explains that combining these various olive oils allows Pompeian oil to deliver the consistent flavor customers expect. Although the company started in Italy, it has been headquartered in Baltimore for more than a century. It's the first olive oil manufacturer to agree to USDA monitoring for quality and purity.
We wouldn't have been surprised to see Colavita ($6.59 for 250 ml, or 78 cents per ounce, Amazon) come out a clear winner in our blind taste test, given that it costs so much more per ounce than the other olive oils our panel tried and did well in an America's Test Kitchen tasting of supermarket olive oils. It also racks up mentions from Chowhounders recommending their favorite olive oils for everyday use on one of the food site's discussion boards.
While none of our tasters disliked this olive oil, it did not stand out, either. In our Colavita olive oil review, panelists described a smooth yet "straightforward" flavor. A few tasters also noticed a hint of "nuttiness" that tasted "almost like almonds." One said this brand "smelled the most olive-y." Our review concluded that this would be a good choice for topping lighter foods or using in salad dressings -- anywhere you don't want the olive taste to be too dominant.
Colavita is made exclusively in Italy, from Italian olives. It's the only olive oil on our list that comes in a dark green bottle, which experts favor because it protects the delicate oil from light that can damage it.
This oil may not excite you if you're dipping bread in it, but our Colavita olive oil review revealed a smooth, mild, and clean taste.
Trader Joe's President's Reserve Review
Whether tasters liked this extra virgin olive oil or not, they reached the same conclusion in our Trader Joe's President's Reserve review: It's strong. Although a few of the testers liked the intense olive taste, one said this particular brand "pulls away from my idea of olive oil" and another noted that it doesn't have an olive smell, despite the strong taste. The greener color turned out to be misleading: It led tasters to expect a rich, fruity flavor, as opposed to the intense flavor that put some people off in our review. The problem cited by most unsatisfied tasters, however, was a bitter aftertaste they described as totally over the top. That suggests Trader Joe's President's Reserve wouldn't excel as a cooking oil, unless you favor very strongly flavored food capable of holding its own against the taste of the oil. The olive oil's lack of delicacy would seem to rule it out for drizzling or dipping. Trader Joe's, however, specifically recommends this oil for just that -- dipping bread.
The President's Reserve oil ($5.99 for 1 liter, or 18 cents per ounce) is not just imported from Italy; it's made from olives that are grown there, which is unusual in an oil that costs so little. The price per ounce is by far the cheapest on our list, but the reactions in our Trader Joe's President's Reserve review were so mixed and so dramatic -- it actually made two testers cough -- that it proved a tough sell. It garnered only one vote from our panel. It's available only by the liter, so if you choose this cheap option, follow experts' advice and decant a bit of it at a time.
Bertolli ($8.49 for 500 ml, or 50 cents per ounce, Amazon) extols its extra virgin olive oil as rich and robust, but tasters came up with a decidedly different assessment in our Bertolli olive oil review. For people who like a strong olive-y flavor to top off pastas and salads, it's a little too innocuous, according a majority of panelists. One tester found it "very nutty," but most said it didn't have much taste. Bertolli is one of the best bets only if you're looking for a mild-tasting cooking oil that won't overpower other flavors. One tester noted that it was "the least bitter" among the oils our panel tasted.
That blandness, of course, is what you want in a cooking oil -- the goal is for the taste of the food to stand out, not the taste of the oil. In our Bertolli olive oil review, panelists suggested it would also be good in a vinaigrette, because it would blend in with other flavors.
Originally founded in 1865, Bertolli was the first exporter of olive oil, according to the brand's website, and boasts of having grown into the world's No. 1 olive oil brand. Package-goods giant Unilever owns the name but turned over its olive oil business to Spain's Grupo SOS in 2008. While the product is imported from Italy, Bertolli combines olive oils from Greece, Tunisia, and Spain as well. Where the olives come from may make no difference to you, but the taste surely does. Not a single tester rated Bertolli tops in our olive oil review.