Just recently, I've discovered three local oils, and they're not sourced from olives. Local sunflower, Camelina and pumpkin seed oils are replacing some of the extra-virgin olive oils on my shelf. These oils come from small producers and deliver health benefits and great taste.
What a difference the method of extracting oil from its source can make. Unlike commercially processed oils, cold-pressed oils have not been altered by chemicals or high heat, so their natural nutrient content and flavors remain intact. They're high in polyunsaturated fats (considered heart-healthy) as well as vitamin E.
Sunflower oil has a higher smoke-point than olive oil, so it won't burn or become off-tasting in a stir-fry or hot sauté. Pumpkin seed oil is distinctly nutty and robust and best suited to vinaigrettes and uncooked sauces, or to season and enrich a soup, stew, sauté or stir-fry just as it's pulled from the stove.
Camelina, the newest of the oils, is rich in omega 3's and antioxidants, like flaxseed oil, but milder and more food-friendly.
Local farmers are working on an initiative to bring local hazelnut oil to market but that seems a few years out. The local nuts are difficult to process. But the oil has a wonderful, nutty flavor and a high smoke-point. Currently, domestic producers in Washington and California are worth checking out.
Pick your oil
Here's quick guide to good local oils. They are processed in small batches using artisan methods and, as a result, are not cheap, comparable in price to extra-virgin olive oil. I use them judiciously, sometimes just to finish and enrich a dish or to make a tasty dressing. Note: They taste best shortly after being opened, so I buy them in small quantities and use them up right away. Sunflower oil is best kept in a dark cupboard; pumpkin seed oil lasts longer if stored in the refrigerator as noted below.
Sunflower oil: Pale, buttery gold in color, with the light taste of sunflower seeds, this oil adds a slight nuttiness to pesto, sauces, soups and sautés, and makes a great mayonnaise. Store in a cool, dark cupboard.
Two regional companies are producing sunflower oil -- Smude of Pierz, Minn., and Driftless Organics of Star Valley, Wis. Smude has a higher smoke-point than olive oil so it works well in high-heat stir-fries and sautés.
Look for Smude at the Birchwood Café, Local D'Lish, Golden Fig and at food co-ops. Driftless Organics Sunflower Oil is pressed using very low heat, so its flavor is a bit nuttier and more distinct than Smude's. It's best used in vinaigrettes, pestos and salad dressings, or in quick sautés. It gives baked goods -- cakes, cookies, breads and muffins -- a mild but distinct sunflower taste. Find it at food co-ops, some Byerly's and Lunds, Local D'Lish and Golden Fig.
Pumpkin seed oil: A lush, dark, brownish-green, this robust oil tastes of home-roasted pumpkin seeds and toasted pepitas. Its strong, nutty flavor can take over a dish, so I like to mix it with other more neutral-tasting oils or use it to season soups, stews, sautés and vinaigrettes. It is especially good swirled as a finish into corn chowder, drizzled over roasted squash or on mashed sweet potatoes and yams. It has a high smoke-point and does well with high-heat sautés and stir-fries. Hay River Pumpkin Seed Oil from Prairie Farm, Wis., is available at food co-ops and select Kowalski's, Byerly's and Lunds stores and by mail order (1-800-928-7145; www.hayriver.net). Store in the refrigerator.
Camelina oil: Golden-colored, mildly grassy, camelina oil is new to our market and is being processed from organically grown camelina flowers in Lamberton, Minn. The seeds resemble golden flaxseed. The oil is loaded with omega-3's, vitamin E and antioxidants. It's been significant in European diets for thousands of years. Here it is sold under the Omega Maiden label and is available in some local food co-ops and online (www.omegamaidenoils.com).
Hazelnut oil: Nearly all of our domestic hazelnut oil comes from the West Coast (California and Oregon), but trials by researchers and farmers allied with the Upper Midwest Hazelnut Growers are underway and there's a good chance we'll see local hazelnut oil in stores within the next few years. Beloved by the French, this bronze-colored oil tastes of the dark, toasty nut and is wonderful in vinaigrettes and baked goods. Its high smoke-point also makes it a fine choice for stir-fries and high-heat sautés. Store it in the refrigerator. I use hazelnut and walnut oils interchangeably.
Beth Dooley is the author of "The Northern Heartland Kitchen."