Check out this post for an example of what’s wrong with American appreciation of extra-virgin olive oil: http://www.bonappetit.com/blogsandforums/blogs/badaily/2011/04/olive-oil-taste-test.html
I hate to scold Bon Appetit, just when they’re getting a new launch with new editors, but honestly this little exercise does not bode well for their future.
So what’s wrong with it? Just about everything but let’s begin with the oils they show in their picture, not all of which are discussed on the blog: several of these were targeted in the recent University of California Davis reports on why it’s not extra-virgin in that bottle on your supermarket shelf. I don’t agree with the Davis report in all respects (I find it suspiciously—if unsurprisingly–biased toward California oil), but surely the person responsible for the Bon Ap blog post should at least have acknowledged the dark shadow of Davis that looms over Colavita, Bertolli, and Whole Foods’ 365 house brand. (You’ll find the most recent report here: http://www.olivecenter.ucdavis.edu/report%20041211%20final%20reduced.pdf.)
Beyond that cavil, however, to assess oils by “walking between bowls. . . with cubes of ciabatta, dipping and scoring,” is no way to figure out what’s a good oil. As any oil connoisseur knows, you have to taste oil by actually tasting it, putting it in your mouth, slurping it from a container (even a spoon) and rolling it around to extract all the flavors, not by delicately dipping a timid little cube of bread which, if it doesn’t do anything else, interferes completely with the flavor of the oil. Then, if you’re trying to determine what’s a good oil, you have to know what you’re using it for—sauteing, deep frying, garnishing–and try it in all those modes before you casually recommend something to your millions of readers who take you as some sort of authority.
But finally, tasters ought to know something about oil too—what it is supposed to taste like, what it means to taste rancid or fusty (two features that all too often characterize oil in American supermarkets—and restaurants), and how to distinguish among the flavors and textures of various oils. You can tell by their inane comments that the Bon Ap tasters hadn’t a clue: “Olive-y,” “subtle,” and, my favorite, “Lemon-y. Nice.”
I continue to advise people who are looking for good all-purpose inexpensive cooking oils to seek out some of the very good extra-virgins imported from Greece. They may be slightly more expensive than Bertolli but they are much more reliable. (Don’t mistake Bertolli for an old-fashioned Italian brand hand-milled in the hills of Tuscany—it is a highly industrial oil produced by Grupo SOS, a very large Spanish multinational.)
And don’t make the Bon Ap mistake of using a cooking oil for finishing a dish. That’s like putting industrial cream cheese on saltines to serve with Two-Buck Chuck. Go out and buy the best darned extra-virgin you can afford, estate-bottled and guaranteed, keep it tucked away in a dark, cool cupboard, and bring it out only when you’re ready to dress a fresh spring salad or garnish a magnificently tasty zuppa di fagioli.