Harold McGee, who I believe hates food, also would dethrone olive oil

As in I would also. Or have, in my own kitchen. I am referring to this new article in the New York Times, in which McGee shows that for the most part, different cooking oils subjected to heat largely taste the same. No point cooking with expensive olive oils, I agree. He says something vague about possible health benefits of polyphenols in olive oil, and something vague about people valuing “provenance,” and something telling about how the label ‘extra virgin’ “doesn’t signify much at all.” This may be true in terms of (raw) flavor, but it does signify that neither heat nor chemicals were used in its extraction—perhaps a factor he lumps under provenance. McGee himself uses Canola as his standard cooking fat, a word better rendered as CANOLA because it is in fact an acronym: CANadian Oil, Low Acid. Derived from inedible rapeseed oil, which makes a fine machine grease, highly invested Canadian farmers found demand plummeting after World War Two and needed a new market—so they bred the egregiously toxic bits out, renamed it something vague and more palatable, and sold it as cheap cooking fat. Incidentally, according to wikipedia, 80% of the crop is now genetically engineered. So much for provenance.

So, if we are in sympathy, you and I, CANOLA is out, and good olive relegated to raw use. And even cheap olive oil—coming, here on the east coast, from a minimum of three thousand miles away—if you value provenancial factors like organicity and cold-pressedness, is not a terribly cheap thing. So, what are the temperate climate cooking oils? The non industrial ones? Off the top of my head, I’m thinking butter, animal fat, walnut and sunflower. Butterworks Farm in Vermont puts out a fine unrefined sunflower, is why I mention the last; probably there are other viable seed oils as well. Generally speaking, though, walnut and sunflower are not currently available, not locally nor cheaply. Butter is fairly expensive, for those of us without cows, and too rich for many uses—so I use it only where it shines. This leaves animal fat. Dirt cheap, versatile, deeply traditional, comes in many flavors—even from different parts of the same animal—it’s shameful how much just about everyone is throwing away.

Here I am again hammering away on one of my favorite topics. I wrote more practically on the subject last year, here. I’ll write more in the future, I’m sure.


3 Comments on “Harold McGee, who I believe hates food, also would dethrone olive oil”

  1. rebecca says:

    LARD!!! YES!!!

    Btw, I believe walnut oil is pretty unstable, and has to be used up super fast even at room temp. I could be wrong as I didn’t check my facts or anything :).

  2. Will Huenink says:

    Hey Rebecca,

    Haven’t done my research on walnut oil either, except that it keeps in the fridge fine for long periods, and is stored at room temp at the grocery. I don’t know how its been stored traditionally——maybe they aimed to use it all up by the following summer. I have an old USDA book from the 1860s which contains an article on walnut production, I believe somewhere in central asia, which I’ve always found inspiring. Someday I’ll post an excerpt here.

  3. matthew says:

    Walnut oil, once opened, is one of the few oils I store in the refrigerator; this may be mis-guided.

    Since the solubility of gases (oxygen) increases inverse to temperature, storing cooking oils in the refrigerator has always seemed like a bad idea. Small bubbles have always appeared in olive oil at colder temperatures and my theory about them had been that oxygen is more soluble in monounsaturated fats which olive oil has more than walnut oil. After research I think that my understanding may be incorrect. The high percentage of anti-oxidants in walnut oil, alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) or omega-3 fatty acid, prevents the little bubbles by binding with the additionally soluble oxygen at refrigeration temperature. If that is true, refrigerating walnut oil speeds up the rate at which the omega-3 fatty acids oxidate—attempting to better understand this process (which I still do not) I came across how building suspension bridges lead to the wide spread use of hydrogenated vegetable oils, “The solubility of Air in fats, and its Relation to Caisson Disease” [1907].

    As for lard, in Spain it is used to make unpalatable croissants while the French use butter and the croissants are delicious.


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