Oil and vinegar make the simplest salad dressing, one that's easy enough to put together yourself: Just whisk oil, vinegar, salt, and pepper, and serve. So why would anyone purchase a bottled salad dressing? We can think of a couple of reasons. Sometimes you are just too tired to do it yourself. But the better reason is that sometimes you want something with more personality and zip. Italian dressing, for example, contains not just oil and vinegar but garlic, red pepper, oregano, and other herbs and spices. Sounds good, but several of those ingredients need to be finely chopped, which can add up to a lot of work. All of a sudden the commercial stuff in the bottle starts to look attractive.
Still, if the supermarket Italian dressing tastes awful, we'd just as soon stick to plain old oil and vinegar. To find out if any of the Italian dressings out there are worth buying, we rounded up seven leading brands. Of the dressings we selected (all available nationwide), most had similar ingredient lists: oil, vinegar, water, sugar, and salt, along with garlic, onion, red bell pepper, various herbs and spices, stabilizers, and preservatives. (A key ingredient in these dressings is xanthan gum, a stabilizer that gives them their signature thickness.) Each dressing was sampled on a piece of iceberg lettuce and given a numerical score by 20 panelists, who did not know which brands were being tasted. Styles and flavor profiles did vary between brands, but tasters had clear favorites.
Were any of these dressings good enough to buy? We found only two that were up to snuff. The winner requires that you add your own oil and vinegar at home, so it was closest to homemade. Our second place brand was OK but on the sweet side -- a good choice for kids. Some tasters called it "light and spicy," while others said that it reminded them of the dressings served in school cafeterias.
Our favorite premium extra-virgin olive oil from a previous tasting, Columela is composed of a blend of intense Picual, mild Hojiblanca, Ocal, and Arbequina olives. This oil took top honors for its fruity flavor and excellent balance. Tasters praised its “big olive aroma, big olive taste” with a “buttery” flavor that is “sweet” and “full,” with a “peppery finish.” One taster said: “It’s very green and fresh—like a squeezed olive.” Another simply wrote: “Fantastic.”
|Spain||$19 for 17 oz|
Tasters noted this oil’s flavor was “much deeper than the other samples,” describing it as “fruity, with a slight peppery finish,” “buttery undertones,” and a “clean, green taste” that was “aromatic, with a good balance.” “It has the flavor that some good EVOOs have,” said one admiring taster.
|Italy||$19.99 for 500 ml ($39.98 per liter)|
Virtually tied for second place, this oil was deemed “round and buttery,” with a “light body” and flavor that was “briny and fruity,” “very fine and smooth,” and “almost herbal,” with “great balance.” “Good olive flavor. I could smell it and taste it,” approved one taster. In a word, “pleasant.”
|Italy||$17.99 for 750 ml ($23.98 per liter)|
|Recommended with Reservations|
A clear step down from the top oils, tasters noted “overall mild” flavor and “very little aroma,” with only a “hint of green olive” and a “hint of spiciness at the end.” In pasta, it was initially “not complex,” but gradually “bloomed in your mouth.” Overall, it was “worthy of a second bite.”
|Italy, Greece, Spain, and Tunisia||$12.49 for 750 ml ($16.65 per liter)|
While some tasters found this oil “sweet” and “buttery” with “medium body” and “slight spice at the end,” others complained that it had “zero olive flavor” and was “so floral it’s almost like eating perfume”; still others noted a “bitter” aftertaste. In pasta, it was “extremely mild” to the point of being “boring.”
|Italy, Greece, Spain, and Tunisia||$10.99 for 750 ml ($14.65 per liter)|
Comments: The best comments tasters could muster were “mild” and “neutral.” Some liked it on pasta (though one called it “Snoozeville”), but complaints were myriad: “metallic,” “soapy,” “briny,” “hints of dirt.” Carped one taster, “I can’t imagine what is in here, but they have a nerve calling it EVOO.”
|Spain||$13.99 for 1 liter|
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