Nut oils are to nuts what olive oil is to olives—the heart of the fruit’s flavor. The best of them are intensely, sensuously, wonderfully perfumed. I find that a little nut oil adds that extra touch that can transform a good dish into a memorable one.
Walnut oil, which has been used for 2,500 years, is the most popular nut oil, followed by hazelnut and almond. Macadamia nut and pecan oils, fairly recent products, are becoming more popular.
Although peanut oil is one of the largest-selling oils in the world, it isn’t a nut oil: the peanut isn’t a nut but an edible seed. And with its high smoking point and fairly neutral flavor, peanut oil is used more as a frying medium than as a flavoring.
The best oils are notably nutty
Most nut oils are made in France, primarily from the regions of Perigord in the southwest and Grenoble in the east. In recent years, California producers have entered the market.
To make nut oil, shelled nuts are crushed into a thick paste that has the texture of raw peanut butter. The paste is stirred at high heat for a few minutes to release the oil from the nuts. The “mash” is spread onto round mats, layered with metal discs, and then stacked into a vertical press.
Oil quality differs by brand. The best nut oils, like the best olive oils, are made from the first pressing. They taste and smell distinctly of the nuts from which they’re made. Inferior oils are often extracted from the second pressing of the nut paste and have hardly any flavor and almost no aroma.
The best oils also start out with topquality nuts—inferior nuts will never be able to offer the intricate richness of their highquality counterparts. Look for nut oils made by artisan producers who take the time to toast the nuts before pressing to give the oil a richer, toastier flavor.
Nut oils are relatively expensive, and the cost of the oil climbs proportionately with quality and the type of nut. Walnuts yield the most oil, so walnut oil is the least expensive nut oil. Manufacturers who simply steam the nuts to save time may make oils that are less expensive, but I don’t recommend trying to save a couple of dollars at the expense of flavor. You can find artisan oils at specialty food stores. My favorite is J. Leblanc. Supermarkets are beginning to stock some good ones, too, such as Loriva’s toasted nut oils.
All nut oils are fragile. If you can, taste the oil before you buy it to check for quality as well as for freshness. Topnotch oils will remind you of freshly roasted nuts. Good hazelnut oil has a deep, almost musky note as well. Because even the best nut oil may go rancid if it sits for too long, buy in small quantities. After opening, seal the oil and store it in the refrigerator.
Experimenting with nut oils
• Use walnut or hazelnut oil in place of olive oil in vinaigrettes. For an updated Waldorf salad, top mixed lettuces with toasted walnuts, apple wedges, and crumbled goat cheese. Dress the salad with walnut oil and a top-quality cider vinegar.
• For a new twist on potato salad, dress juststeamed potatoes with a walnut oil vinaigrette. Add blanched green beans and toasted walnuts.
• Try any nut oil drizzled over hot steamed or sautéed vegetables, especially green beans or asparagus. Macadamia nut oil is great brushed on corn on the cob.
• Try hazelnut oil on a salad of cold roast duck meat; its almost musky flavor is a terrific match for poultry.
• Take trout amandine to a whole new level of lusciousness by brushing the fish with almond oil just before serving.
• Sprinkle a blend of hazelnut oil and sherry vinegar on a wild rice salad.
Use nut oils right from the bottle
Nut oils are always at their best when they’re poured straight from the bottle into food that needs no further cooking. Don’t use them for high-heat frying, as you might olive oil. A few moments of gentle sautéing won’t do much harm, but beyond that, you’re likely to lose most of the oil’s delicate flavor.
Nut oils are also wonderful to experiment with when baking. Substitute a nut oil for a less flavorful oil: it will add richness and depth to a bread or a cake. Try this with nut breads and carrot cake, or brush the loaves with walnut oil when they emerge from the oven.