Oil used to prepare food is more than a vehicle for sauteing and frying, and it is more than the binding ingredient in salad dressing. Every oil in the pantry, it turns out, has a story. Venturing beyond the grocery store aisle can not only expand flavor and health potential, but it can also bring local history and global exploration to the table. For olive oil enthusiasts, Columbia offers more choices than ever. And, for those looking to experience local foods and flavors, the revival of traditional oils is making ingredients that were once for chefs only available to home cooks.
Pressing South Carolina’s Culinary History
Before John Wesson devised a way to make cottonseed oil palatable, and before George Washington Carver touted peanut oil, another oil dominated Southern cuisine. “Benne oil in the 19th century was the standard salad oil of the South,” says University of South Carolina professor David Shields.
David, a nationally known food historian, discovers and brings back “lost” foods. He has appeared in episodes of the PBS series “The Mind of a Chef” and published several books, including most recently The Culinarians, a history of early American fine dining.
David, a driving force in Slow Food USA, brings attention to and protects foods across the Southeast through Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, a living catalog of ingredients that are on the brink of extinction. Benne oil, thanks to David’s work, is part of the Ark of Taste, and its revival is underway.
Many South Carolinians are familiar with benne seed because of Charleston’s benne wafers. Africans introduced benne to the United States in the late 1600s as an important ingredient in slave diets. The benne is a type of sesame seed that is more difficult to grow than the sesame seed variety planted by large-scale producers. Benne oil also has a different taste from the sesame oil widely available in grocery stores.
“Benne oil has a mild, malty, hazelnut note,” says David. “Thick, nutty benne cream is a byproduct of the pressing that’s been picked up by chefs as a finishing ingredient.” Cooks also value the pressed benne cake, what’s left after the oil is extracted, which is sometimes sold as benne meal or benne flour.
Benne oil is just one of several oils derived from classic Southern ingredients that are bringing more flavor to the table. Okra seed delivers a unique, sought-after flavor when pressed. “There’s been a moment when people have wondered if we’re eating the wrong part of the okra,” says David.
This past year, he took an experimental pressing of okra seed oil to a specialty food event in Columbia. “The chefs tasted it,” he says, “and their minds were blown away by how wonderful it was.” Since then, the oil’s producer, Oliver Farm Artisan Oils in Pitts, Georgia, has had trouble keeping up with the demand.
Oliver Farm also produces other oils from Southern nuts and seeds, including pecan oil and green peanut oil. The company’s benne oil is a product of a partnership with Columbia-based Anson Mills, which grows the organic benne seed used for pressing.
Olive Oils that Bring the World Home
Multiple attempts to produce olive oil successfully in the South failed. “The only olive trees that endured were on Cumberland Island in the 19th and 20th century,” he says, explaining that offspring of those plants can still be purchased at some nurseries in South Georgia.
Olive oil was first imported to California by Spanish missionaries and settlers, eventually making its way east. In the 1870s, small olive orchards began cropping up in California, and production of American olive oil ensued. More than 300,000 gallons are currently imported annually; however, olive oil comes from not only Spain, but also from Greece, Italy, and other countries.
The Crescent Olive on Devine Street keeps more than 60 oils and vinegars on tap from around the world. Owners Charlotte and Mike Easler encourage sampling and comparing oils from the many different varieties to determine preferences. The extra virgin olive oils have an unexpected creaminess and a peppery finish within a distinctive flavor of each oil. “For example, an olive grown in Spain may have a different intensity from the same type of olive grown in Australia,” says Charlotte.
Freshness is also a key factor when choosing olive oil. Charlotte and Mike stress the importance of consuming fresh extra virgin olive oil to take advantage of the health benefits and flavor. As the oil ages, health benefits and flavor diminish. They provide the crush date on every Ultra Premium Extra Virgin Olive Oil and rotate the oils they stock from different parts of the world to follow the growing seasons.
“To ensure the freshness, we source Southern Hemisphere oils following their May to June harvest. Likewise, we source Northern Hemisphere oils following their November to December harvest,” Charlotte explains.
Olive oil should typically be consumed within one year of the harvest or “crush” date, again to best take advantage of both the oil’s health benefits as well as the flavor. High quality, well-sourced, pure extra virgin olive oils provide wonderful health value, such as antioxidants, heart-healthy monosaturated fat, and anti-inflammatory properties that mimic ibuprofen.
Small-batch oils pressed from heirloom ingredients tend to carry extra health value as well. “Benne oil is extremely high in antioxidants,” says David. “Okra seed oil is very nutritious, too.” In fact, okra seed oil contains linoleic acid, a polyunsaturated omega-6 fatty acid with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties.
Making the Most of New Flavors
Benne oil is a great frying medium because it can take high heat without breaking down. To enjoy its flavors more fully, though, David recommends using benne oil in salad dressing and as a finishing oil.
“I like it on cooked greens. Benne oil with some pepper vinegar is the way to go. Talk about a taste punch.” David says that okra seed oil and green peanut oil are better used to dress dishes rather than as a cooking oil.
Olive oil is more versatile than most people realize, and flavored oils are becoming popular. “Flavored oils can save a step when cooking,” says Mike. “Garlic infused olive oil is popular because it lets you enjoy the flavor without the work.” With infused olive oils, however, be sure to know the brand and the crush date as some companies will sell old oil and try to mask it with dyes, chemicals, and perfumes.
Flavored oils usually fall into two categories. Infused oils have herbs and spices added after the oil is produced. With fused oils, the flavoring ingredient is crushed with the ripe olives through a process called agrumato. Oranges, lemons, and limes are the traditional candidates for agrumato, a word that comes from the Italian “agrume,” meaning citrus. Since olives contain a high degree of water and are just 20 percent oil, the centrifuge process used to remove the water also removes the excess juice, leaving the citrus oil merged with the olive oil. Today, this process can also include herbs such as rosemary or various peppers.
“You can use orange or lemon fused oils for baking,” Mike says, “and our butter flavored oil made with seven plant extracts is vegetarian and dairy free, making it a great substitute for butter. It’s one of our favorites.” They provide a butter-to-oil conversion chart and a number of recipes for cooking with olive oil, including some that may seem surprising — brownies and waffles, for example.
Learning a little about the history of consumable oils, their uses in the kitchen, and their nutritional pluses opens up a whole new avenue of culinary possibilities. Don’t be afraid to enjoy the wonderful attributes — including delectable tastes and smells — that oils bring to cooking and dining experiences.
Blood Orange & Bourbon Chocolate Mousse
Try this dessert for an unexpected use of olive oil. Recipe courtesy of The Crescent Olive.
6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate chips
3 large eggs, divided
1/2 cup confectioners sugar
3/4 cup blood orange olive oil
2 tablespoons Cloisters Bourbon Honey (available at The Crescent Olive)
2 egg whites
Melt chocolate over a double broiler, stirring frequently. Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.
In a large bowl, beat egg yolks and sugar on high speed until well combined. Add olive oil in a slow, steady stream and continue to mix at medium speed. Once the olive oil has been incorporated, add honey and melted chocolate. Mix until combined.
In another large bowl, whip egg whites until soft peaks form. Gently fold whites into chocolate mixture until combined.
Spoon mixture into individual bowls and refrigerate a minimum of 3 hours or until set. Serve chilled with desired toppings.
Black-Eyed Pea Hummus
You can use any kind of field peas to make hummus. Hummus can be flavored with spices or peppers to vary flavors. Recipe from Oliver Farm Artisan Oils.
1 1/4 cups black eyed peas, cooked, or 1 can, drained, liquid reserved
Zest of 1 lemon
Juice of 1/2 lemon
1 tablespoon benne tahini
2 tablespoons benne oil
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper (optional)
2 tablespoons onion, minced
1 large clove garlic, minced
Salt and pepper
Combine all ingredients in a food processor until smooth. If too thick, use some of black eyed pea juice to thin out.
Know Your Oils
In the past, oils may have gotten a bad rap because of fat content. However, in recent years, the healthfulness of these “good” fats is touted by nutritionists and dieticians alike. Yet, not all consumable oils provide health benefits. Here are some additional oils that are healthy options:
• Almond oil — high in monounsaturated fat
• Peanut oil — high in monounsaturated fat, but also has Omega 6 fatty acid content, which is nutritionally beneficial for skin and hair growth, metabolism, and bone health
• Sesame oil — rich in monounsaturated fat, antioxidants, and Omega 6
• Grapeseed oil — rich in Omega 6 and vitamin E
Use all oils in moderation as a little goes a long way, and know an oil’s smoke point, which is the temperature that the oil can reach before it begins to smoke and produce sometimes harmful free radicals and/or toxic fumes. Some oils have a low smoke point, and some higher. If an oil is cooked past its smoke point, the benefits of an otherwise healthy oil can disappear, according to Cleveland Clinic.
Plus, all oils are not created equal. Just because a bottle is labeled “olive oil” does not ensure its quality and healthfulness. However, there are a few tricks to determining if the touted “extra virgin olive oil” is actually fresh and extra virgin:
• Because true EVOO is made from green, unripe, early harvest olives, the color should be deep green, not golden yellow.
• Aroma should be distinct and somewhat grassy.
• The flavor should be strong and fruity with a slight burning sensation of pepper at the back of the throat upon swallowing; this feeling is the result of a high level of an antioxidant called oleocanthal.
Oils that taste and/or smell rancid, musty, vinegary, or metallic should be avoided; they are either not the real deal, or they might be past their prime. No matter the type of oil, select cold-pressed or expeller-pressed if possible. These terms mean that the oil is either pressed at a cool temperature so that flavors, aromas, and nutrients are retained, or that the oil was achieved by expelling (squeezing) mechanically instead of chemically.