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[Photographs: Robyn Lee]

A reader emailed us recently with a million-dollar question. Does good-quality, cheapish olive oil exist? She writes:

I was cooking something out of an Ina Garten cookbook and she always calls for 'good quality olive oil.' Since I'm on a college student budget, it's not really practical for me to splurge at a luxury store. I was standing at the supermarket, looking at a whole row of olive oil, wishing someone would tell me what brand to buy.

And so, our olive oil taste-test was born. We tried nine olive oils—nothing over $20 per liter, with most bottles hugging the $10 price point. Some of us chose the bread-dipping technique; others believed a spoon was more official. Potentially, there were some olive oil shots taken. But defining "good" was tough.

On one end of the spectrum you have Ed, who willingly admits to being an olive oil wuss. He likes them buttery and calm, while just about everyone else in the office craved the peppery, cough-inspiring, sharper flavors. So we'll refrain from judging Ed and just say, good olive oil is relative. Which oils were mellow? More intense and spicy? The most like water? The results, after the jump.

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Best Mellow Oil

Fairway ($8.99 for 1 liter): The New York mini-chain of markets sells this as their in-house brand of straight-forward olive oil both online and in stores. It's smooth, soft, and pretty neutral. If you're in the Ed camp and can't handle the throat-grabbing intensity of peppery oils, this one will make you feel safe. Good for cooking.

Best Bitter, But Not Crazy Bitter Oil

Goya ($3.99 for 250 mL): For those in favor of buttery olive oils (aka Team Ed) but are ready to branch out into the crazier world of bitter, more dramatic flavors, this would be a good place to start. It's not too spicy but still has a grassiness that gets your attention. At first sharp, it eventually mellows out. Good for bread dipping.

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Best Bang for Buck

Trader Joe's Spanish ($7.49 for 1 liter): Spanish olive oils are usually a better value since the touted Italian olives can be marketed for more. One of the cheapest oils we tasted, this Trader Joe's Spanish EVOO—they sell a variety but admittedly, we fell for this pretty tree artwork—had a well-rounded flavor. Earthy but not too bitter, it'll leave your mouth slightly puckered—nothing too uncomfortable. Good for salads. Note: it was better than the Whole Foods 365 counterpart of Spanish EVOO.

Most Expensive And Just So-So

Colavita ($5.29 for 250 mL): Buying the adorable mini bottle made this same like a decent bargain, but it was actually the priciest one per-mL we tried. Though it had a nice, olive-rich taste (always a good thing when you're talking olive oils) it wasn't that exciting. Nothing harsh to say here, it's just not the best value.

Best Color

Target Brand Archer Farms ($8.99 for 500 mL): Because you also eat with your eyes, this one wins for best shade of yellowish-green. The less filtered quality makes it darker, hence more intriguing-looking than the other just yellowish oil-colored ones.

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Best All-Around

Whole Foods 365 Organic ($6.99 for 500 mL): We all came together in support of this guy. It has a nice sharpness up front with hints of bell pepper, but won't choke you with bitterness. Dunk bread into this and go to town drizzling it over salads—this is a winner.

Least Memorable

Bertolli ($8.99 for 500 mL): As I type this, wait there is nothing to type. Because it was that life-changing! For all the fat in olive oil, you should at least walk away with a memory. Maybe it's fine for cooking, but bread-dipping? Eh. Be skeptical of the actor dude's Italian accent on those Bertolli commercials.

Most Like Water

Filippo Berio Extra Light Tasting Olive Oil ($4.29 for 250 mL): In all fairness, they warned us about the "extra light" part. But why does it have to look so much like water? A pale yellow, slightly contaminated-looking water, but still. Do you really contain olives? Really? C'mon, are you just corn oil playing a little game of pretend? The "tasting" part sounded good, but as one person noted, "it tastes like invisible."

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Um, So Nine Bottles of Leftover Olive Oil?

What if, hypothetically speaking, there were still nine bottles of olive oil sitting in the SE headquarters kitchen? We could always go the boring route and stir-fry a boatload of vegetables, but that doesn't sound that exciting. A BYO Something to Deep-Fry party? Olive oil cakes? (This recipe for olive oil cake with orange marmalade looks mighty delicious.) Holler if you have any other suggestions.

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