Nut and Seed Oils
One of our most overlooked ingredients are nut and seed oils. At a time when heart-friendly olive and canola oils are the fats we use the most often -- for salads, searing, frying, marinades, or just adding flavor -- nut and seed oils have become relegated as exotic or even ignored ingredients. And that is unfortunate because some are highly versatile and add wonderful flavor -- often even more than flavored vinegars, or cold sauces like mayonnaise, or compound butters.
Important to note is that not all these oils have the same amount of mono- and polyunsaturated fats (there's a reason that olive oil rules). And if you or anyone you cook for has peanut or nut allergies, by all means keep your own counsel as to which ingredients are safe to use.
But if you've come of age as a home cook at a time when only olive and canola oils are in your pantry, here's an introduction to the luxuriously flavored nut oils -- and so you don't confuse them with seed oils, a few details on those as well.
Nut and Seed Oils
Almond Oil: This pale oil is made from almonds and is primarily used in baking and making candies and other confections. It's often used to coat cake and baking pans or when sautéing slivered almonds that are then used in desserts or savory dishes.
Avocado Oil: Extracted from the pits of avocados, this oil is high in monounsaturated fatty acids and vitamin E (both good things) and has a high smoke point -- the temperature at which oil begins to disintegrate -- making it good for high temperature frying. But it also has a slight avocado and anise flavor, is harder to find in grocery stores, must be refrigerated after opening, and is usually more expensive than olive oil.
Canola Oil: The name "canola" comes from the term "Canadian Oil Low Acid." The oil itself is rapeseed oil, is low in saturated fats, has a medium-high smoke point, which means it can be used for frying, and has a neutral flavor (I'd say no flavor at all).
Corn Oil: One of the most widely used all-purpose oils, corn oil is viscous with a pale flavor and deep yellow color. Corn oil is high in polyunsaturated fats and has a high smoke point, making it both healthy and a good choice for restaurant and commercial cooking.
Flaxseed Oil: With a very low smoke point, this oil should not be used in cooking over heat, but its high levels of polyunsaturated fat and omega-3 fats makes it a good choice when used in its raw state, as in salads and salsas.
Grapeseed Oil: A pale delicate oil extracted from grape seeds that is high in polyunsaturated fats, making it one of the healthiest choices. Because it is neutral flavored with a very high smoking point, it is a good choice for frying.
Hazelnut Oil: With a rich and complex nutty flavor, this oil is costly to produce and is usually sold in small bottles. It is best used in salads, for marinades, or used raw as a flavoring in sauces or when baking or making candies with hazelnuts.
Other Nut Oils: Macadamia, Pecan, Pistachio, and other nut oils are harder to find and somewhat more exotic than almond, hazelnut and walnut oils but are essentially the same -- redolent of the nuts from which they're made and used to flavor finished dishes, sauces, baking and confectionary. All are somewhat costly to buy and fragile to keep as they're prone to spoilage faster than other oils.
Peanut Oil: An almost tasteless oil with a medium-high smoking point that is use in cooking and especially deep frying, peanut oil is moderately high in monounsaturated fats and low in saturated fats. However, because of the risk of nut allergies (although peanuts are legumes, and not nuts), peanut oil has become far less popular in both commercial and home cooking.
Pumpkin Seed Oil: A dark brown oil with the appealing flavor of toasted pumpkin seeds, it's used primarily as a flavoring for cooked vegetables and fish.
Safflower Oil: High in polyunsaturated fats and low in saturated fats, safflower oil is a versatile cooking oil, although it can have a strong flavor.
Sesame Oil: The sesame oil most of us are familiar with is made from toasted sesame seeds, has a dark color and strong flavor, and is used to flavor foods. But there is also a cold-pressed type of sesame oil that has a paler color and taste, and is used as cooking oil.
Sunflower Oil: All-purpose sunflower oil is tasteless, has a light texture, is high in polyunsaturated fats, and inexpensive, making it a good choice for cooking, salad dressings, and mixing with other ingredients that have stronger flavors.
Vegetable Oil: When you see this on a bottle, read the label carefully because this is a name given to blends of various oils that may contain saturated fats. Generally this kind of oil should be avoided, as it's always better to know exactly what you're about to put into your food.
Walnut Oil: One of the most exquisitely flavored oils, walnut oil has a deep golden color and the aroma of the nuts from which the oil is made. It also contains healthy omega-3 fats. It is costly to produce and once a bottle is opened, it has a short shelf life. Buy it in small quantities and store it in a cool, dark place (although do not refrigerate it as the cold will cause its flavor to deteriorate). For the best flavor, look for oils produced in the Perigord and Dordogne regions of France. Use it in salad dressings, baking (it can be used in cookies or nut breads), and to flavor any cooked foods that match well with the taste of walnuts.
Cooking With Nut Oils
While there are clearly many options when it comes to cooking with oil, one of the best ways to stock your city kitchen pantry is to keep an edited selection of oils that support the way you cook.
This is what I do: I try to always have two types of extra virgin olive oil -- one for daily cooking, sautéing and making salad dressings and another that is more artisanal (and costly) for flavoring or drizzling over a finished dish (e.g., sliced tomatoes, a Caprese salad, or a broiled steak). Then I keep a bottle of canola oil to use when making mayonnaise or any recipe where mild or tasteless oil is best. Finally I keep oils that flavor certain dishes, such as sesame oil and walnut oil. These I buy in the smallest bottles I can find because I use them infrequently and so they are prone to going rancid before I use them up.
Since I don't do deep-fat frying in my kitchen (it makes a mess and for health reasons, I prefer to not cook that way), I don't need to keep any oil for that purpose.
I mostly use walnut oil to make salad dressings, especially if I'm making a salad that is very plain, such as a bowl of perfect in-season local lettuce. Walnut oil vinaigrette is a good match with any salad to which I'll add toasted walnut pieces, such as one made with endive, cooked beets, blue cheese and walnuts. You could do the same thing with hazelnut oil and then add toasted hazelnuts.
A tip about using nut oils in salad dressings: I always only use half nut oil and substitute the rest with canola oil. That's because nut oils are very heavy in both texture and taste and can overwhelm a salad. By going half nut oil and half a tasteless oil like canola, the salad remains light while still capturing the nut oil's special flavor and aroma.
-- Walnut Oil Vinaigrette (this makes enough for a green salad to serve four):
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
1/2 teaspoon salt
Several grinds black pepper
1/2 heaping teaspoon Dijon mustard
1 1/2 tablespoon walnut oil
1 1/2 tablespoon canola oil
In a small bowl (or in the bottom of your still-empty salad bowl), combine the vinegar, salt, pepper and mustard with a fork or small whisk. Stir until the salt dissolves and the mustard combines with the vinegar. Add both oils and continue to whisk until the dressing emulsifies. Toss with your salad and serve immediately.
-- Another use for nut oil -- pecan oil would be good for this -- is to brush it on ripe halved stone fruit, such as peaches, and then pan grill in a cast iron grill pan. Once the fruit is hot and slightly softened, serve with frozen vanilla yogurt or a little sour cream and a pinch or two of brown sugar for a summer dessert. Some chopped toasted pecans on top would of course, be nice to add.
-- Nut and sesame oils are also excellent for drizzling over cold or room temperature salads that include raw or cooked vegetables. For example, a scant drizzle of sesame oil is a perfect finish to sesame peanut noodles to which you add slices of raw red peppers, Kirby cucumbers, and scallions. See our link to Martha Stewart's version of this popular summer dish, which I've made often and always with a good result.
-- Likewise drizzle chunks of roasted sweet potatoes with a little pistachio oil and toss with a handful of gently toasted unsalted pistachio nuts (put into a dry skillet on top of the stove over medium-high heat for about 4 minutes, keeping your eye on them the entire time as nuts can go from toasted to burnt in a flash) and minced chives. Use a light hand with the oil because a little goes a long way. So consider nut oils to add flavor to our best summer ingredients and a way to keeping your city kitchen interesting -- without adding any kitchen heat.
If you're looking for something easy to serve with a green salad dressed with walnut vinaigrette, see our two new recipes for summer cooking -- both requiring a little heat but either could be an easy weeknight supper. Oven-Cooked (in 7 minutes) Shrimp Scampi and a way to use beet greens in Spaghettini With Wilted Beet Greens and Feta.