You’re about to make a salad, soup or stir-fry. Which bottle of oil do you reach for? If you’re like most people, it’s probably olive oil or a vegetable oil such as canola. That’s ok – but there’s a whole world of unique oils out there, so why not expand your repertoire?
A decade ago, supermarket shelves contained mostly oils derived from corn or soybeans. But as consumers learned about how oil affects their health, they started to demand products higher in monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats, rather than saturated fats. Today even some large grocery chains are stocking high-quality olive oils and nut oils. And if you venture online or to health food or gourmet stores for your oil shopping spree, you’ll find a world of unusual and nutritious choices.
Here’s a look at several off-the-beaten oils that might just deserve a place on your pantry shelf.
Macadamia Nut Oil. Open a bottle of macadamia nut oil and take a sniff. You’ll smell an intriguing, slightly nutty aroma. While far subtler than hazelnut or walnut oil, the flavor is terrific in salad dressings or drizzled on steamed vegetables or risotto.
Macadamia nut oil has the advantage of a very high smoke point– about 400 degrees—making it ideal for high-heat cooking like roasting and stir-fries. Best of all, it doesn’t lose its flavor and healthful properties when heated, as many more unstable oils do. (When oils reach their smoking point, they not only lose their flavor, but potentially disease-causing free radicals can be unleashed.)
More good news: macadamia is one of the heart-healthiest oils out there, with even more monounsaturated fat (the “good fat”) than olive oil. It’s 80 percent monounsaturated, compared to olive oil at 74 percent and canola at 58 percent. It’s also got the highest ratio of Omega-3 to Omega-6 fatty acids of any oil, with nearly equal amounts of each. Its higher level of Omega-3’s make it a good choice for those trying to reduce risks of heart disease.
Avocado Oil. Like macadamia nut oil, avocado oil is high in healthy monounsaturated fats. It’s made by pressing the pulp of the fruit; it can take 20 or more avocados to produce one bottle of oil! Avocado oil has an even higher smoke point than macadamia nut oil – over 500 degrees. When used to sauté tofu or vegetables it adds a buttery, fruity flavor that can take a dish from ordinary to impressive in seconds flat. If it weren’t so expensive, it would probably be great for making French fries (not that you should eat French fries, mind you!).
Of course, the logical place to consider using this oil is in dishes containing avocados – it’s especially delicious in salads with both avocados and fruit. But here’s a tip from Diane Lee, Director of Marketing for artisanal oil manufacturer La Tourangelle: add it to your guacamole to boost the avocado flavor. Talk about gilding the lily!
Squash seed oils. Pumpkin seed oil is so high in phytosterols that some people take it as a supplement to help lower cholesterol. But it shouldn’t be overlooked as a culinary secret weapon. Because of its low smoke point, pumpkin seed oil is best used cold. This oil, especially the toasted variety, adds a nutty but mysterious note to salad dressings – it’s especially nice in a vinaigrette made with a cranberry or raspberry-infused vinegar. To really wow your dinner guests, drizzle it on some vegan vanilla ice cream for dessert! It’s no wonder this oil is sometimes called “green gold.”
Another recent entry into the exotic oil world is butternut squash seed oil, produced mainly by Stony Brook WholeHearted Foods, located in New York’s Finger Lakes region. The seeds of butternut and similar winter squashes are simply roasted, lightly filtered and pressed, resulting in a pure, unrefined oil. While it has slightly more saturated fat than other seed oils, it still has only one-third the saturated fat of butter. It does have a high smoke point, so you can use it for baking, sautéing and roasting. But you’ll more likely find yourself dipping bread into it, drizzling it on soup, or even using it in mashed potatoes. For a memorable vinaigrette, blend it with an equal amount of a more neutral-flavored oil, some fresh ginger, garlic, Dijon mustard, and a dash of tamari.
Of course, these oils are just a few of the interesting choices out there. You can also experiment with tea oil, toasted hazelnut oil, hemp seed oil and of course the much-hyped coconut oil. You’ll probably still rely on extra virgin olive oil for everyday use, but an occasional oil change will do your cooking good. One word to the wise: when buying these oils, choose carefully. Unrefined, expeller-pressed oils are far superior in taste and nutrition to refined, chemically-processed oils.