Oils are some of cooking’s most essential ingredients. From greasing pans to making bread dips, salad dressings and marinades, oils are indispensable and versatile components of any chef’s repertoire, whether at home or in a restaurant. But while many of us default to Crisco – or, especially here in Alberta, canola oil – there are a staggering variety of cooking oils.
From vegetable oils like olive oil to nut oils made from hazelnuts or pecans, fruity citrus oils and melon seed oils, high quality, gourmet and artisanal products are finding their way onto store shelves and into Edmonton’s kitchens.
Many of those oils are sold by Evoolution, a shop on 104th Street that specializes in extra-virgin olive oil, also known as “EVOO,” and balsamic vinegar. Extra-virgin olive oil is one of the world’s most popular cooking oils, and it’s renowned for its healthful properties. Low in saturated fats and high in beneficial compounds known as polyphenols, extra-virgin olive oil has to have a specific chemical makeup in order to earn its title.
Its popularity, however, has caused some problems. When you pick up a litre of olive oil at your local grocer, you assume that what’s on the label is what’s in the bottle, but as New Yorker journalist Tom Mueller uncovered in his book Extra Virginity: The Sublime and Scandalous World of Olive Oil, that’s not always the case.
Some corrupt producers have passed off other oils like hazelnut or sunflower-seed oil for olive oil. Meanwhile, others have diluted olive oil with other ingredients. The world trade in fraudulent olive oil could give the cocaine trade a run for its money, says Curtis Savage, one of Evoolution‘s owners.
That’s why Evoolution hires a supplier that tests every bottle of oil it buys in a laboratory, to ensure that customers are actually getting the high-quality oil.
The tasting experience at Evoolution is reminiscent of a wine tasting, with eight or nine different varietals made from different species of olive. “We have a variety of oils that cover the range from mild to robust. We’ve found that most people’s palates fall somewhere in the medium range right now,” says Savage. But olive oil, while certainly popular, is just one of many options.
Evoolution also carries a wide array of infused oils, which are extra-virgin olive oils flavoured with everything from Persian limes to red cayenne chilis, and a few other gourmet oils, including black truffle oil and walnut oil.
There are also oils coming from closer to home. Highwood Crossing, an organic grain farm not far from Calgary, produces cold-pressed canola and flax oils from its harvests. Tony Marshall, who runs the business with his wife, Penny, says that Highwood’s approach has resulted in unique oils that reflect the province and its growing conditions. “Depending on the year, you’ll be able to taste and notice different nuances in our oils, since we don’t refine those idiosyncrasies out of the oil, we embrace them.”Canola and flax oil are both high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are thought to help lower blood pressure, among other health benefits.
Across the street from Evoolution, at Tzin Wine & Tapas, executive chef Corey McGuire says he’s been experimenting with a variety of artisanal oils, including those from Highwood Crossing, as well as hemp and flax seed oil from Mighty Trio Organics. Oils aren’t just for entrees either. McGuire is always changing his menu but, in the past, he has served a grapefruit olive oil cake made with Evoolution’s yellow grapefruit-infused olive oil and served with honey crme anglaise and caramel sauce.
What type of oil you use in your own kitchen will largely depend on what you’re making. “For saute, you want something that’s going to withstand high heat and not impart a lot of flavour, and be inexpensive because you’re going to go through it like crazy. If you’re using it for making vinaigrettes, dressings or dips, you want something that has a lot of flavour.”
Corn oil and sunflower oil are both nearly flavourless and have high smoke points that make them ideal for cooking, while unrefined oils (like many nut and seed oils) and cold-pressed oils won’t stand up to heat and are best in dressings or drizzled over foods. The key, says McGuire, is to experiment.