Infused Oils – Add Flavor AND Health Benefits
By Cheryl Forberg, RD
Salt, herbs and spices usually top the list of ways to add flavor to foods. But there’s a whole other class of ingredients that contribute to the taste of a dish: The fatty oils that add richness and satiety contribute to flavor in different ways – and, perhaps surprisingly, the right kind of oils are a boon to a healthy diet.
Fat has long been the villain of the food industry. After all, it’s high in calories, and some types of fat are indeed bad for you. For example, saturated fats from meat and dairy products, and artificial trans fats found in many processed foods and fried fast foods, can both increase artery-blocking LDL cholesterol, which can contribute to heart disease and high blood pressure. Saturated fats from animal sources also contain unhealthy cholesterol. But the unsaturated fats found in vegetable and seed oils can have a beneficial effect; they not only lower LDL counts, but boost levels of HDL – the substance that helps evacuate cholesterol via the liver. Of course, the key is moderation – fat should account for 25 percent or less of your daily caloric intake.
Food chemists will tell you that many flavor compounds are fat soluble. This means that knowing how to use healthy fats in your cooking can actually make your food taste more robust because these good fats act as flavor carriers.
For the most part, most of the cooking oils that I use have a high “smoke point” – that is, the temperature at which they begin to smoke and give off an acrid odor – making them versatile for both salads and cooking.
Avoid Bulking Up on Oil
- Seed oils. Oils made from pressed seeds deliver highly-concentrated nutrients and flavors in small doses. Favorites include:
- Grapeseed oil – This slightly nutty oil contains antioxidant properties, and withstands heat well. It can be infused with herbs to create an aromatic oil for salads.
- Flaxseed oil – Containing heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, this oil is mild enough to be used in salad dressings, although its low “smoke point” makes it a less optimal choice for cooking
- Olive oil. This staple of the Mediterranean diet has been used since 3,000 B.C., and has a slightly grassy, vegetal flavor. “Extra-virgin” and “virgin” oil comes from the first pressing, and is unrefined; its flavors are purest for salad dressings and other uncooked sauces, while lower grades (such as “semi-fine” or “pure”) are less flavorful, but withstand high temperatures better. Olive oil not only contains HDL-boosting compounds, but it contains Vitamin E and antioxidants; use it instead of butter or margarine as your go-to cooking oil, and you’ll achieve a nutrition boost with this single, simple swap.
- Nut oils. Like the nuts from which they’re produced, nut oils are a good source of protein and beneficial fats. Nut oils tend to be pricier than other types of vegetable oils, so they come in small containers. But if your budget allows it, try experimenting with them.
It may be tempting to buy cooking oils in bulk to cut costs. But because of their unsaturated fat content, these oils interact with the oxygen in the air and go rancid fairly quickly. I always sniff my oil (like my milk!) when I open the bottle to be sure it’s still fresh. One teaspoon of rancid oil can ruin the entire recipe so be diligent about this. Purchase only what you can use within a four-month period, and store oils in a cool, dark place to slow the aging process.
Stir-Fried Chinese Long Beans with Mushrooms, Peppers and Ginger-Lemongrass Oil
Makes 4 large servings
For the infused oil:
I cup grape seed oil
4 stalks of lemongrass (using bottom 6 inches only), split in half lengthwise and then cut crosswise in 1 inch pieces
2 Tbsp. peeled, chopped ginger
For the stir-fry:
onion, peeled and cut in thin julienne
1 cup chopped bell pepper (or hot peppers if you prefer)
1 cup sliced or chopped mushrooms (I used chanterelles but you can use shiitakes or brown mushrooms)
1 bunch Melissa’s Chinese Long Beans (*approx. 1 pound), ends trimmed, cut into 3’ lengths and blanched (there will be about 4 cups of prepped beans)
Salt and pepper (I like to use smoked salt), to taste
Red chile flakes (optional)
For the infused oil:
Heat oil over medium high heat. Add lemongrass and ginger. When oil begins to boil, turn down to simmer and allow to cook for about 5 minutes. Don’t let the lemongrass and ginger turn brown. Remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature. Strain and pour oil into bottle or jar.
For the stir-fry:
In a large sauté pan, heat 1 Tbsp. of the infused oil. (Save the rest of the infused oil for another use.) Add onions and peppers and cook until softened but not brown. Add mushrooms and cook for 1 minute or until just starting to soften. If necessary, add another tablespoon of oil.
Add blanched beans to the pan and sauté for 3 to 4 minutes, or until the beans are cooked through. Season to taste with salt and pepper and sprinkle with hot chile flakes, if desired.
Nutritional Analysis for one serving
Calories from Fat 35
Total Fat 4g
Sat Fat 0 g
Trans Fat 0g
Cholesterol 0 mg
Total Carbohydrate 11
Fiber 4 g
Sugar 3 g
Protein 2 g
Vitamin A 15%
Vitamin C 20%
Iron 6 %