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.
Cheap Olive Oil Taste Test
We asked the tasters in our olive oil review to comment on the appearance, flavor, and aftertaste of five oils: Colavita ($6.59 for 250 ml, or 78 cents per ounce), Bertolli ($8.49 for 500 ml, or 50 cents per ounce), Pompeian ($4.19 for 250 ml, also 50 cents per ounce), Goya ($3.99 for 250 ml, or 47 cents per ounce), and Trader Joe's President's Reserve ($5.99 for 1 liter, or 18 cents per ounce). The tasters did not know which oils they were sampling; the contenders were decanted into similar containers and labeled A through E. All were extra virgin, generally considered the best variety for dunking or drizzling.
While it seemed safe to assume that Colavita, the most expensive brand, would sweep the tasting, to our amazement, the winner was relatively cheap Goya. The tasters described it as "lemony" with a "peppery aftertaste" and very little bitterness. What's more, another cheap brand, Pompeian, emerged as our runner-up for best olive oil.
Appearance.Colavita is the only oil of the five in our olive oil review that comes in a green bottle; the others come in clear bottles. This matters because light is an enemy of olive oil, as cooking blog The Kitchn explains. (Of course, this did not influence the tasters, because they didn't see the bottles.) If you buy cheap olive oil in a large bottle, decant it into something smaller and put the rest in the pantry. Keep it away from the stove, too -- another enemy is heat.
The appearance of the olive oils in our test containers was remarkably similar. Some testers thought the Trader Joe's and Pompeian olive oils looked slightly greener, but otherwise all seemed to have the same golden hue.
Flavor.Given that the oils looked so similar, our tasters were surprised by how different they tasted. The Bertolli had a very mild and "straightforward" flavor, according to the panelists. This led some to suggest it might be nice on a salad, but others found it bland and forgettable. The Colavita tasted fruity, "clean," and "olive-y," tasters said, and had a pleasing smoothness. But overall they deemed it similarly "insipid," "boring," and "generic."Most tasters enjoyed the "fruity," "sharp," spicy flavor of the Pompeian, although some detected an unappealing bitterness. The Goya had a "fruity flavor" with "a bit of a zing" that our tasters appreciated. Several mentioned that it wasn't heavy and would be "good for cooking" as well as on its own. The strongest reactions went to the cheapest olive oil, Trader Joe's President's Reserve -- two people actually coughed when they swallowed it. While some people liked the "very strong olive flavor," others said, "Wow -- it's a little much" and "It burns the back of your throat."
Aftertaste.While the oils exhibited interesting flavor differences, it was the lingering aftertastes that really seemed to sway tasters in our olive oil review. Once again, the most extreme comments went to Trader Joe's President's Reserve, which had a "bitter aftertaste" that several people found "unpleasant" and "too strong." By contrast, the Bertolli was so mild that it had "almost no aftertaste." A few testers perceived a slight bitterness, but that's it. Likewise, the mild Colavita garnered some mentions of a "sharp" aftertaste, but that wasn't especially noticeable. While the winning Goya displayed notes of pepper at the outset, it had what one taster termed an "exotic" aftertaste. Aftertaste was the primary downside for the people who weren't crazy about the Pompeian -- they declared it a bit too "bitter and sharp."
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