As a recipe writer, I’ve asked you countless times to reach for canola “or another neutral oil.” But what if vegetable oil isn’t supposed to be flavorless after all? Most “neutral oil” got that way because it has been chemically refined, deodorized and otherwise processed in the name of granting it near-infinite shelf life.
“Big ag has decided oil should be flavorless, but that runs counter to the larger food movement,” says Joshua Leidhecker, owner of Susquehanna Mills, in Pennsdale, Pa., where he makes a very different type of vegetable oil. Something that’s anything but neutral.
It was Leidhecker’s unusual sunflower oil that first got me thinking about all this a few months ago. I was eating dinner at Cadence restaurant in Philadelphia, where my bread arrived beside a ramekin of what I figured was olive oil. My server informed me it was local, expeller-pressed sunflower oil. I may actually have rolled my eyes, wondering why some chefs just have to be so cute.
Then I dipped a torn hunk of bread into it, and repeated until the bread was gone. I considered tipping the remaining dram of oil directly into my mouth.
This was nothing like any sunflower oil I had tasted before, which had been limited to the ones you find at the supermarket, labels boasting of their “neutral” flavor. This was nutty and buttery, with a shadow of earthy bitterness. Its richness was the perfect complement to the toasty, whole-grain character of the bread.
Leidhecker describes his oil as “lightly refined” because it is filtered to remove a naturally occurring waxy substance. But beyond that, it’s made in much the same way as extra-virgin olive oil. The oil is coaxed from local sunflower seeds, harvested on the property or nearby, with an old-fashioned expeller press. Only physical pressure, no heat or chemicals, is used to extract the oil.
A few other businesses in the United States have taken this approach and offer sunflower oil on par with Leidhecker’s. New York state is home to two such operations. Stony Brook WholeHeartedFoods makes its oils in the Finger Lakes region, and you can find them at a variety of natural food markets and food co-ops, mostly on the East Coast. Hudson Valley Cold Pressed Oils sells its sunflower oil at farmers markets and local retailers. Pressed in Central Michigan, Small House oils are also sold mainly near where they’re made.
All of these oils, including the one made at Susquehanna Mills in Pennsylvania, ship nationwide. If you don’t live in those areas, order any of them at the company’s website. You can also find full-flavored, cold-pressed sunflower oils imported from Eastern Europe online, but for me, that removes the warm fuzzies of supporting American farmers, especially if you live close to a domestic producer. But you do you.
Soon after getting my first taste of nonindustrial sunflower oil at Cadence, I bought my own bottle through my CSA. At $10 for 25 ounces, it’s less than half the price of the imported olive oil I normally use when I want a flavorful fat. Not only would I save money if I could replace the Italian stuff, but I could also feel better about cutting the food miles represented by my pantry.
That’s why Spike Gjerde, chef at Woodberry Kitchen in Baltimore, dumped olive oil in favor of Susquehanna Mills oils several years ago. His top priorities are sustainability and supporting the local food economy. And if it’s good enough for Gjerde, a James Beard award-winning chef, surely it’s good enough for me.
“The sunflower oil has become our go-to for a few things, but especially for vinaigrettes,” Gjerde says. (His kitchen also uses Susquehanna Mills canola oil.) “It has a distinct flavor, but it doesn’t overwhelm other ingredients.” The oil’s buttery overtones make it a favorite of pastry chefs and bakers. The nutty notes accent the flavors of the whole grains in a bran muffin, for example. And unlike some other minimally refined oils, it doesn’t pick up off notes in the oven’s high heat.
“At Woodberry, we also love it for popcorn,” Gjerde says. That’s a popular use for the sunflower oil around Leidhecker’s home kitchen as well. He notes that popping the corns in sunflower oil gives you a movie-theater-style popcorn without all the saturated fat of butter or the artificial flavors you get from a pump at the concession stand. Now that I’ve used it this way too, I can agree it is one of the simplest and best ways to enjoy it.
But it’s far from the only fun you can have with sunflower oil in your cooking. A good guideline is wherever a buttery flavor would be welcome (and honestly, where is butter not welcome?), so too is the flavor of sunflower oil. That’s why the very first thing I made with my bottle was an old favorite, creamy Potato and Celery Root Soup.
I’ve made versions of this soup in the past with plenty of butter and a little cream, but as I’ve trimmed saturated fat from my diet in recent years, I’ve made it less often. I had a feeling using sunflower oil instead of butter would be a healthier way to get that same well-rounded flavor and even creaminess without using dairy, and it is quite the taste-bud illusion.
For my next experiment, I wanted to remix pesto with some very nontraditional ingredients. Of course, instead of the usual olive oil, I’d sub sunflower oil. Why not double down on a theme and use sunflower seeds instead of the typical pine nuts?
Because I was working with mostly local ingredients, I decided to use some greenhouse-grown arugula instead of basil. The result does not taste like pesto — but it does taste very good. The nutty, buttery, peppery sauce is best served with a hearty whole-wheat pasta that can stand up to a bowl-mate with a lot of character.
And finally, I’m sharing a very simple vinaigrette recipe that you can change up to suit your own pantry and tastes. Really, you should try substituting sunflower oil for whatever oil you like to use in your go-to homemade vinaigrette recipe. If you’ve been using some plain Jane vegetable oil, your salad life is in for an upgrade.
If you are anything like me, you’ll find yourself giving EVOO the cold shoulder as you reach for sunflower oil to gloss roasted vegetables, fry your eggs and imbue your pancakes with a distinctive local flavor.
MAKE AHEAD: The pesto can be refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 1 day, or frozen for up to 1 month.
12 ounces dried whole-wheat fusilli
1/4 cup hulled, raw sunflower seeds
1 ounce Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, cut into chunks
1 clove garlic
1 1/2 cups packed arugula leaves
1/4 cup unrefined, expeller-pressed sunflower oil
2 teaspoons white balsamic vinegar
Bring a pot of generously salted water to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the pasta and cook according to the package directions. Drain and return to the pot, reserving about 1/2 cup of pasta cooking water.
Meanwhile, combine the sunflower seeds, cheese and garlic in a food processor. Pulse until finely ground. Add the arugula and pulse to break down the greens. With the motor running, slowly stream in the oil.
Add the white balsamic vinegar, then process for about 10 more seconds, to form a fairly smooth pesto. Taste, and season lightly with salt, as needed.
Toss the hot pasta with the pesto, adding the reserved pasta cooking water 1 tablespoon at a time until you reach the desired consistency of sauce.
Serve right away.
From food writer and cookbook author Joy Manning.
Tested by Andy Sikkenga; email questions to email@example.com.
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Calories: 520; Total Fat: 23 g; Saturated Fat: 4 g; Cholesterol: 0 mg; Sodium: 115 mg; Carbohydrates: 66 g; Dietary Fiber: 8 g; Sugars: 3 g; Protein: 15 g.