Alternative Oils Prove Healthier And More Flavorful Than Olive Oil

Fat is back, in all its glorious drippy, oozy, gleaming goodness. 

While sugar has been taking beatings from health experts these days, fat is shedding its bad name. For on-trend restaurants and gourmet markets, that means a celebration of the full-bodied, unabashed, oh-so satisfying flavor found in oils. 

“My sales in oils in the past three years have multiplied by five,” says Alexandra Walsh, co-owner of Bedford Gourmet, a specialty food shop and caterer. “In the last year, it’s at least doubled.” 

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Walsh is ordering more pine-nut and hazelnut oils in response to customer requests. Bedford Gourmet’s prepared risottos and roasted beet salads are drizzled with black and white truffle oils. These kinds of high-end oils are best enjoyed uncooked for maximum tasting pleasure.

Hemp seed oil

“Nut and seed oils are nice to make dressings with, or drizzled over heirloom tomatoes and Burrata cheese,” Walsh says. “And a little goes a long way with truffle oil.”

Plant-based oils are finally getting their day in the sun (but, please, store your oils away from sunlight to prevent spoiling).

For many people, the go-to oil at home is that Mediterranean classic, the much-lauded olive oil. When an oil with a higher smoke point is required for frying, most people resort to canola or safflower. Restaurant chefs once commonly used blended oils to mix the benefits of higher heat tolerance with better flavor. Now? Not as much.

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The first wave of alternative oils splashing upon our foods is unrefined coconut oil; spicy sesame oil; decadent truffle oil; grapeseed oil; rich, red palm oil; and tasty peanut and sunflower oils.

The current wave is even nuttier: Think almond, hazelnut, pistachio, pecan, walnut, avocado, mustard, flaxseed, hemp, rice bran, porcini, butternut squash seed, toasted pumpkin seed, and even argan (it’s not just for hair!).

“Argan? Gorgeous oil,” says Chef Lee Gross, who is co-partner at Organic Pharmer, a carry-out café and delivery service of foods free of gluten, dairy, soy, corn, and eggs in Rye Brook, with his wife, Chef Darleen Gross. “At home, I’ve used it for drizzling. It’s got a little bit of a nutty sesame quality to it.” At work, he uses toasted sesame oil for the dressing on the Pharmer’s Asian salad.

Darleen scoops out unrefined, raw coconut oil for almost all their café’s baked goods, from her sorghum breads to her sunflower butter cookies.

“When it’s room temperature, it’s solid. I can cream it for cookies, and it has a more buttery taste, not as strong as olive oil,” she says. “It’s like an all-purpose baking fat.”

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Many of these other oils, such as avocado and nut varieties, have similar health benefits to olive oil, such as the monounsaturated fats that lower bad cholesterol, raise good cholesterol, and regulate insulin.  

Raw coconut oil goes into the sunflower-butter cookies at Organic Pharmer

Dabbling in all these choice oils can provide a wider array of vitamins, antioxidants, and anti-inflammatory polyphenols than sticking with the mainstream olive, tried and true as it is. Plus, it’s hard to tell which olive oils really are extra-virgin—meaning produced by simply crushing the olive, without applied heat or chemical process—or just mislabeled. Extra-virgin olive oil, or EVOO, retains the most health benefits and flavor and has the highest price. But the US doesn’t regulate the “extra-virgin” product claims, and a 2010 study conducted by the UC Davis Olive Center reported that 69 percent of imported oil labeled as extra-virgin olive oil did not meet the standards for extra virgin.

So get a load of these nuts: Walnut oil has more than 10 times the healthy omega-3 fatty acids found in olive oil. Almond and hazelnut have an extra helping of vitamin E.

One tropical oil has deluged our store aisles more than any other oil offshoot.

“The fastest growing alternative oil is coconut, as it is extremely versatile and can be used in not only cooking and baking, but also in health and beauty,” says Gerald Lacasale, the oils and vinegars product merchant for Balducci’s in Scarsdale. Avocado, nut, seed, and truffle oils are next in line on the road to popularity, because “different types of oils are utilized for different culinary purposes,” Lacasale says.

Still, more olive oil infusions are luxuriating on home and restaurant tables.

Pure Mountain Olive Oils & Vinegars, a tasting shop with locations in Tarrytown, Bronxville, and Rhinebeck, New York, takes infusions to another level with blood orange, butter-flavored, chipotle, and tandoori masala. Customers request basil and garlic-mushroom the most, though, says co-owner Wolfgang Foust. 

Truffle oil, whether pure or in a blend, also adds instant panache. At Mint Premium Foods in Tarrytown, the eggs Benedict earns the white truffle-infused oil treatment. And guests receive bread at the table with olive oil from Crete, mixed with eucalyptus honey. 

“It’s somewhat of a more Mediterranean-style oil,” says Daniel Fry, restaurant manager of the gourmet shop and restaurant.

Argan oil, produced from the kernels of the Moroccan argan tree, is sometimes drizzled on the saffron-infused orzo or Moroccan chicken entrée at Mint. Argan has the same heart-healthy properties of olive oil, and it’s typically thought of as a beauty product for hair, skin, and nails, like coconut used to be.

“Argan oil is incredibly exclusive and expensive,” Fry says. But, we say, worth the occasional splurge. 

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