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 a Philadelphia restaurant, 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. 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 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. They all ship nationwide.
Soon after getting my first taste of nonindustrial sunflower oil, I bought my own bottle. 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.
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. “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.
“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.
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, 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. 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 non-traditional 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?
I also use some greenhouse-grown arugula instead of basil. The result does not taste like pesto – but it does taste very good.
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.
SUNFLOWER SEED PESTO PASTA
12 ounces dried whole-wheat fusilli
¼ cup hulled, raw sunflower seeds
1 ounce Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, cut into chunks
1 clove garlic
1½ cups packed arugula leaves
¼ 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 ½ 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.
PER SERVING: 520 calories; 23 g total fat; 4 g saturated fat; 0 mg cholesterol; 115 mg sodium; 66 g carbohydrates; 8 g dietary fiber; 3 g sugars; 15 g protein.
POTATO AND CELERY ROOT SOUP
Servings: 6 (makes 11 cups)
¼ cup lightly refined, expeller-pressed sunflower oil, plus more for serving
2 medium onions, chopped (about 2 cups)
1 rib celery, chopped
2 cloves garlic, chopped
1 pound Yukon Gold potatoes, peeled and chopped
1 medium celery root (celeriac), peeled and chopped (about 3 cups)
8 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
Freshly ground black pepper
2 tablespoons chopped chives, for garnish
Heat the oil in a large pot over medium heat. Once the oil shimmers, stir in the onions and celery; cook for about 8 minutes, until softened but not browned. Add the garlic and cook for 1 minute, until fragrant.
Add the potatoes, celery root and broth. Increase the heat to high and bring to a boil, then reduce to medium-low, partially cover and cook for about 45 minutes, until the celery root is very tender when you test it with a fork. Turn off the heat.
Remove the center knob of your blender lid and place a paper towel loosely over the opening. Working in batches, purée the soup in the blender until smooth. Taste, and season lightly with salt and pepper.
Serve each portion hot, drizzled generously with more oil, then garnish with chives.
NOTE: If you can’t find a minimally refined sunflower oil you could use butter or olive oil.
PER SERVING: 200 calories; 10 g total fat; 2 g saturated fat; 5 mg cholesterol; 110 mg sodium; 26 g carbohydrates; 2 g dietary fiber; 4 g sugars; 6 g protein.
SUNFLOWER OIL VINAIGRETTE
1/3 cup unrefined, expeller-pressed sunflower oil
1 tablespoon white balsamic vinegar
1 tablespoon white wine vinegar
1 tablespoon minced shallot
2 teaspoons sour cream
¼ teaspoon dried basil
¼ teaspoon dried oregano
¼ teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
Combine the oil, both vinegars, shallot, sour cream, dried basil and oregano, salt and a pinch of the pepper in a jar with a tight-fitting lid.
Seal and shake vigorously to form an emulsified vinaigrette. (Alternatively, whisk in a mixing bowl or purée in a food processor.)
Taste, and add more salt and/or pepper, as needed.
PER SERVING: 170 calories; 19 g total gat; 3 g saturated fat; 0 mg cholesterol; 150 mg sodium; 2 g carbohydrates; 0 g dietary fiber; 1 g sugars; 0 g protein.