Anyone who has ever set a wok on fire while trying to sauté vegetables in unrefined pumpkin seed oil, or nearly passed out from the overpowering smell of truffle oil-doused mashed potatoes, knows that cooking with artisan, specialty oils can be a slippery proposition.
Nevertheless, more and more of these oils are showing up in restaurant offerings and on manufacturers' product lists. According to market research firm SPINS, for the year ending in October 2007, sales of flavored and specialty oils in natural foods supermarkets and conventional retailers rose 9.5 percent, from $32.1 million to $35.1 million. So if your customers aren't already asking for roasted pistachio oil or infused chile oil, chances are they soon will. But there's more to stocking these oils than simply unpacking them and sticking them on a shelf. Here's what you and your customers need to know about how specialty culinary oils are made and how they can be incorporated into a variety of foods.
They're so unrefined
Generally, what makes a specialty oil special is how it's processed. Oils must be extracted from nuts, seeds or other botanicals, and there are only a few ways of doing this. The most common process is refining, where heat or chemical solvents are used to extract the oil. According to Petaluma, Calif.-based Spectrum Organics, which makes a variety of heat-refined oils, the benefit of refining is that the oils have a higher smoke point—the level at which a heated oil starts to break down, smoke and basically stink up your kitchen. Refining also preserves shelf life and removes impurities. The minus is that much of the oil's natural flavor, color and some of the nutrients are literally cooked out during the refining process, says Ellen Markham, Spectrum's director of education and training.
Most specialty artisan oils are unrefined. There are two common extraction methods for unrefined oils: cold pressing or expeller pressing. These methods rely on pressure and friction rather than high heat to extract oils. Friction creates some heat, but European standards for cold pressing limit temperatures to 122 degrees Fahrenheit—substantially lower than the boiling temperatures used in the refining process. The advantage to this extraction method is that it preserves all of the oil's flavor and nutrients. The drawback is that the smoke points are lower than those of refined oils. Also, unrefined oils have shorter shelf lives, and there can be particles floating in the oil that weren't removed during a refining process.
Bija, a division of British Columbia-based Flora, is launching a line of unrefined oils extracted via hydro-therm, a proprietary technique derived from an Old World European process. According to Bija Category Manager Shane Hart, the hydro-therm process begins with a mixture of salt, filtered water and nuts or seeds. The resulting mash is toasted at around 90 degrees, which filters out the oil. "It's a process that brings out an amazing taste in the oil," Hart says.
Matthieu Kohlmeyer, president of Richmond, Calif.-based La Tourangelle, a gourmet oil manufacturer, says other ways to bring out flavor include roasting or toasting the seeds or nuts before extracting the oil. He points out that specialty oils also tend to use higher-quality nuts, seeds or botanicals. "Refined nut oils are made from what is called nut-oil stock," he says. "Nut-oil stocks are actually substandard nuts sold at a discounted price by California nut growers to oil manufacturers." Substandard nuts include those that are misshapen, picked at the wrong time, have broken or stained shells or kernels that are too small.
Of course, all these highly sourced ingredients and special processes can drive up an oil's price. That's why flavor is so important in specialty oils, and why sampling is key to acquaint your customers with the nuances of different ingredients and brands. "You might as well have something that you think tastes good since you spent so much money on it," Kohlmeyer says.
In the kitchen
A refined walnut oil may have a smoke point of 400 degrees, compared with 320 degrees for unrefined. Frying temperatures are generally 300 to 375 degrees, says David Kamen, a chef with the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y. So while an unrefined oil could be used for low-heat or quick frying, like stir fry, it will smoke and taste burnt at higher temperatures. "Basically, you have to limit these oils to simple warming," Kamen says.
The best way to use a specialty oil is as a condiment, Kamen says. "Because of their subtle flavors and their expense, they're not something you want to hide in a dish. You want to get some bang for your buck." He likes to float a couple drops of pumpkin seed oil in roasted acorn squash soup. "The soup warms the oil and you get a great aroma," he says. An added bonus: Pumpkin seed oil is a beautiful green color, adding visual interest to a dish. When using oil as a garnish, Kamen literally works with an eyedropper. Too much of a highly flavored oil can overpower a dish, he warns. "Start slow with a couple drops. You can always add more if it's not enough."
Kamen also likes to drizzle specialty oils over a salad, rather than incorporating them into a dressing that could mask their flavors. Other drizzle-worthy foods he recommends: steak, salmon and risotto.
Hart, of Bija, is fond of specialty nut oils, such as almond and walnut, for desserts. Not only can they be substituted for less flavorful oils when baking, but they can also be drizzled over everything from ice cream to cake. "Walnut oil over German chocolate cake is absolutely to die for," he says. "Or put it on fresh zucchini bread instead of butter."
Other recommendations from Hart: Try pumpkin seed oil as a base for pesto, mix it with fresh-squeezed garlic over vegetables, or swap it for canola oil in a Roquefort salad dressing. Drizzle almond or walnut oil over oatmeal or cereal. "My kids love that," he says.
Registered dietitian Sarah Krieger, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, says she uses specialty nut oils "like I would real nuts, like putting pistachio sprinkles on something." It's important to only drizzle oil because of its high caloric content. "A tablespoon is 120 calories, so you should treat it like a condiment," she says. "Don't bathe in the stuff."
Krieger says there aren't many studies on the nutrient contents of specific specialty oils, but unrefined walnut oil is high in omega-3 fatty acids, and pumpkin-seed oil is packed with omega-6s. Almond and hazelnut oil are rich in omega-9s, according to La Tourangelle.
"With a little bit of education, people can learn how to open up a whole different cooking area in the kitchen by using specialty oils," Hart says. "They create an organoleptic feeling—a sensory experience where you're really enjoying your food."
Vicky Uhland is a Lafayette, Colo.-based freelance writer and editor.
Natural Foods Merchandiser volume XXIX/number 1/p. 22, 24