31 Jul

Beyond olive oil: Specialty oils, from grapeseed to walnut, enhance flavor

By Jolene Ketzenberger,

Olive oil just isn’t exotic anymore. Though it trumped vegetable oil as the U.S. consumer’s cooking oil of choice nearly five years ago, today’s oil options have expanded far beyond corn, canola and even extra-virgin olive oil.

For healthfulness and versatility, says Indianapolis gourmet shop owner Jack Stearns, grapeseed oil is hard to beat.

“Grapeseed oil is probably the healthiest oil you can use,” Stearns says. “It can be used for salad dressings, frying — anything you use oil for.”

After grapes are pressed for wine, the seeds are separated from the skins and stems. The seeds are dried, then pressed to expel the oil.

Grapeseed oil contains vitamin E and antioxidants, but it’s the oil’s high smoke point and light, neutral flavor that make it popular with chefs.

“Grapeseed oil is great to saute in,” says Dave Foegley, executive chef at Indianapolis restaurant Downtown, who recently created several dishes using premium oils.

Nut oils, on the other hand, such as walnut, hazelnut or almond (and pecan oil is on the horizon), often have more flavor. These can be used to enhance the nutty flavor of a dish, says Foegley, who used almond oil with a mustard-champagne vinaigrette to top a smoked salmon salad with romaine hearts, avocado and bacon.

“It doesn’t have to be tossed greens in a bowl,” Foegley says. If you have a salad with hazelnuts or walnuts, make your dressing with a little of that oil to enhance the flavor so it comes through more.”

Walnut oil, while significantly more expensive than regular cooking oil (the La Tourangelle brand is generally available for less than $10 for a 16.9-ounce can), seems a bargain when compared with more expensive oils. Argan oil, for example, is produced in southwestern Morocco from the fruit of the argan tree, an ancient species that grows only there, and costs about $34 at specialty stores for an 8.5-ounce bottle. But the toasty, nutty oil, pressed from kernels found inside the fruit’s pit, adds an authentic touch to Moroccan tagines, couscous and other dishes.

Truffle oil, generally extra-virgin olive oil infused with truffles, is another deliciously pricey option, ranging from $5 to $10 per ounce to more than $100. But a little goes a long way, Foegley says.

“With truffle oil, you just need a drop,” he says, “because it’s so pungent.”

Mushroom oils, Foegley says, are more forgiving.

Such exotic oils, while often available at specialty food shops, may not all be on supermarket shelves. But premium olive oils are easy to find and can add considerable flavor, notes Foegley.

“Good extra-virgin olive oil is one of the nicest things you can use,” he says.

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