The first article in our two-part series on culinary oils covered different types of popular cooking oils. Many popular oils have great utility in the kitchen due to their wide range of smoke points, their shelf-stability, and their fat profiles. By contrast, specialty oils often have very specific flavor profiles and low tolerance for heat, and they can be more perishable.
Why? Let’s do a quick education session before we get started. Many types of oils can be described as either “refined” or “unrefined.” Refined oils are made by using high heat or chemicals to extract the oils, a process that often destroys or inactivates nutrients present in the raw product. However, refined oils can better withstand heat and can be less expensive. In contrast, unrefined oils are derived through processes that don’t involve high heat or chemicals, like pressing. While unrefined oils retain much of the nutritional profile, flavor and aroma of their original source, they are more prone to spoilage than refined cooking oils. Both types are useful in different scenarios, but in general, the specialty oils listed below are more commonly found in unrefined form.
For those big on flavor, specialty oils add a richness often unmatched by everyday cooking oils, along with potential health benefits. In this article, we highlight five unique oils you might be considering including in your own culinary adventures.
While we might often refer to them as a type of nut, almonds are actually a seed that is very rich in fat, making them a good source of oil. Almond oil contains both monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, though it’s higher in monounsaturated fats. Both types of unsaturated fats have heart–health benefits, especially when used to replace saturated fats in our diets. Almond oil is also a source of vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant and nutrient important for vision, reproduction and maintaining neurocognitive health. Unrefined almond oil has a mild, nutty flavor, and because it does not fare well at high temperatures, it should be used to finish dishes after they’re done being cooked—as part of a dressing or finishing oil, for example.
Flaxseed oil, also known as linseed or flax oil, is made by pressing the seeds of the flax plant. It’s often found on grocery store shelves in its unrefined form, which means that it can spoil easily. Storing flaxseed oil in a cool, dark place (like a refrigerator) can prolong its shelf life. Unrefined flaxseed oil has a low smoke point, which is the temperature that the oil begins to burn and smoke, leaving behind undesirable flavors. With its low smoke point, flaxseed oil performs best in low-or no-heat applications, like in salad dressings or finishing drizzles, which help retain the oil’s nutty flavor. Flaxseed oil is high in polyunsaturated fats, particularly omega-3 fatty acids, a type of polyunsaturated fatty acid. Consuming a balanced diet, including omega-3s from fatty fish and other seafood, has been associated with lower risk for heart disease.
Hemp Seed Oil
While hemp seed oil comes from the Cannabis sativa plant, hemp contains no more than 0.3 percent tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), the psychoactive ingredient in cannabis. This means that hemp seed oil won’t get you high, but a one-tablespoon serving does provide 10 grams of polyunsaturated fats and 2 grams of monounsaturated fats. Hemp seed oil is primarily made by pressing hemp seeds, resulting in an unrefined oil that is best used in non-heat applications like dressings, drizzles, or mixed into foods like smoothies or oatmeal. Hemp seed oil can also be found as a dietary supplement. As with any supplement, if you decide to consume hemp seed oil in this form, try to choose a brand that is quality–tested, and consult with your health care provider to talk through the risks and benefits of the product.
Like canola oil in the Nordic diet or olive oil in the Mediterranean diet, sesame oil is a staple ingredient in Asian cuisines. With its pronounced nutty, toasty flavor and lower smoke point, toasted sesame oil is best suited for dressings and drizzling on foods just before serving. Sesame oil has almost an equal mix of both types of mono- and polyunsaturated fats, both providing health benefits. Because sesame oil is so high in unsaturated fats, be sure to store it in a cool, dark place to reduce rancidity.
Walnut oil is extracted from walnuts, and the toasted variety has an intense, roasted–walnut flavor. Like other unrefined nut and seed oils, walnut oil tastes best raw. Drizzle it over baked salmon or mix it with olive oil in vinaigrettes for added depth. Per one-tablespoon serving, walnut oil contains the highest amount of unsaturated fat out of any nut and seed oil on this list.
Whether you’re a culinary enthusiast or simply looking to add more variety to your diet, there are many types of cooking oils to choose from. Have fun trying out new oils and experimenting with familiar ones in your cooking—there are many ways that oil can be used to enhance your food’s flavor.
This article contains contributions from Madeleine Reinstein, dietetic intern at the University of Maryland, and Alyssa Pike, RD.