Coconut Oils

Coconut (Cocos nucifera) oil is extracted from the meat of coconut and is solid even at room temperature (its melting point is 76°F (24°C). When liquid, it is a clear, transparent oil. When solid, it is white as snow and has a buttery yet slightly grainy texture. It also has a high smoke point of 360°F (180°C). It is a very stable oil and doesn’t go rancid (due to oxidation) very fast.

There are different types of coconut oils with different characteristics. It’s important to know what they are and how to use them.

Virgin coconut oil is coconut oil that has been extracted in a “wet process” is how people in South East Asia make their own oil at home - from coconut milk. Coconut milk is produced by shredding the coconut meat and mixing it with water, and than squeezing the mixture to extract a milk or cream of coconut (depending on the oil content). The oil is than allowed to separate on its own from the water by rising to the surface after 12-24 hours. In this process there is no heat involved for the most part; but some heating may take place after the separation of the oil in order to draw out any excess moisture that can risk spoiling the oil. The resulting oil is very fragrant and flavourful, coconutty oil.
It can be used on its own for moisturizing the skin as well as in cooking. I love using it as a fragrant substitute to butter in desert-type foods – i.e.: on pancakes, waffles and toast with either maple or honey or fruity jams and confitures. It can also be used in baking and in cooking though the smoking point is lower than more refined coconut oils. It is beautiful for sautéing the vegetables for curry, as a substitute for ghee. It is also beautiful as is or if infused with vanilla beans as a pure and simple skin moisturizer: it absorbs fast into the skin and leaves it slightly fragrant.

A less virginal oil is made by a dry process, in which the shreaded coconut meat is dried in the oven slightly to reduce the moisture to 10-12%, and than the oil is pressed from it.

Virgin coconut oil has a unique chemical makeup: although it is made of 92% saturated fatty acids, these are short-chained molecule (with a chain of 6-12 carbon atoms, rather than the long-chained fatty acids which are made of 14 or more carbon atoms), which gives it different characteristics than those of saturated fats from animals or other plants. These fatty acids absorb more readily into the digestive and blood system, providing immediate source of energy to the body.

Virgin coconut oil is also rich in lauric acid, a fatty acid that effectively attacks a variety of virus, fungi and bacteria. In fact, it is present in breast milk and is one of the components that helps to protect babies’ immune system against infections when they are young. Capric acid also has a similar anti-microbial effect (see more info here).

Health benefits of coconut oil can be seen in studies of large populations that use coconut oil as their main source of energy (i.e.: Indonesian people) yet have very low cases of heart diseases.

RBD Coconut Oil is refined, bleached and deodorized, and made from the “copra” (coconut meat that has been dried in either smoke, sun or kiln) and than processed with some heat in a hydraulic press. Than it undergoes a refining process to rid it from any impurities and the result is an oil that has no flavour or aroma of coconut whatsoever. It is used in commercial food, cooking and cosmetic preparations.

Virgin coconut oil and RBD coconut oil have a melting point: 76°F (24°C) and smoke point of 360°F (180°C). They have a shelf life of about 2 years.

Hydrogenated coconut oil is RBD coconut oil that has undergone a further process to make it solid even in warmer countries and has a melting point of 97-104°F (36-40°C). To achieve this, the unsaturated fats in the coconut oil are loaded with hydrogen atoms to make them saturated. Hydrogenated coconut oil is used in food preparations such as chocolate and margarine so that they don’t melt too fast; and also in non-dairy ice creams and mock-chocolate covers for ice-cream bars, etc. It is hardly as healthy as the virgin coconut oil because of the high content of trans fatty acids in it. These acids block absorption of essential fatty acids and raise the bad cholesterol levels in the blood while lowering the good cholesterol - among other negative influences on the body. Trans fatty acids are not present in virgin coconut oil.

Fractionated coconut oil is a fraction of the coconut oil, namely caprylic/capric triglyceride oil or medium chain triglyceride (MCT), and has different qualities than the whole coconut oil. The lauric acid is mostly removed for use in medicine and cosmetics. Fractionated coconut oil is also used medically, in special diets and in cosmetics and body products because of its light weight and fast absorbing texture, transparent appearance and stable consistency (it remains liquid in most climates). It makes for an excellent non-greasy body oil and can be also used as a base for oil and solid perfumes because it has no fragrance of its own, absorbs well into the skin and has a long shelf-life.

Other interesting uses for coconut oil:
- Fuel for lamps
- Soaps and detergents: coconut oil is most valuable in making vegetable based soaps, and creates a soap with excellent lather
- Surfactants for housecleaning products as well as conditioners
- Engine lubricants
- Sexual lubricants (to be avoided with latex condoms) – it also helps to prevent yeast infections

In Ayurveda, coconut is considered cooling and is used to that effect both in massage oils and in foods. Most Indian curries require coconut for the sauce (the meat is crushed along with the freshly roasted spices and sauteed garlic and/or onions). I love coconut in every shape and form and knowing that it is good for my health is just an extra bonus... I like using coconut milk or cream instead of dairy in ice creams. And on hot summer days, I would mix shredded coconut in cool water and eat it as is after it has soaked for a while (sometimes with a few raisins thrown in for some sweetness). I also love adding a tablespoon of grated coconut to savoury rice - it adds a milky flavour and crunchy texture. And of course the best way to it is is fresh, cut into cubes, with a squeeze of lime juice and with some fresh mango cubes; or just suck the fresh young coconut from a straw... A treat that is served in many Thai and Malaysian restaurants in town.

Wheat Germ Oil

Wheat, originally uploaded by Bern@t.

As the name suggests, wheat germ oil is extracted from the germ part of grains of wheat (Triticum vulgare). The germ is the most nutritious part of the wheat: it has the highest content of protein, vitamins and minerals (whilst the rest of the grain is ostly starch and fiber). Wheat germ oil contains an unusually high amount of vitamins and anti-oxidants, more than any other raw natural oil.

Dry flakes of wheat germ are a nutritional food that can be added to salads, on pasta, in waffle or pancake batter, pastries and energy bars. It has a sweet, slightly nutty and agreeable flavour. Which cannot be said about the oil. Unfortunately, wheat is gaining bad reputation these days because there is a growing trend of people allergic (or thinking they are allergic) to wheat and the fashionable carbohydrate-free diets. But whole grain wheat is very nutritious and has proteins, minerals and vitamins in it, it isn’t just empty starch. Using the germ alone is a good way to gain the benefits of wheat with reduced starch content. Remember to keep it refrigerated and use up before it goes rancid (the flavour will become sharp and bitter and so would the odour).

The oil has a strong odour and is not particularly appealing (although some might disagree – like wheatgrass juice it has its following). But it has medicinal properties unlike any other oil and can be used in treating various skin conditions. Because it has such vital skin-regenerating properties, it can help heal sun burns, prevent and heal diaper rash and dermatitis. It greatly improves the elasticity of the skin and helps to prevent scarring, and is therefore used by pregnant woman to prepare the vaginal pass before labour to prevent rip and tear. Because of its thick consistency and strong odour it is mostly used medicinally or as a skin-nutrient additive to lighter and smoother oils.

Wheat germ oil has a very short shelf-life and is best kept refrigerated and used up within 6 months of opening the bottle. It should not be exposed to heat (which is to be said about storing most oils; but particularly important for preventing this oil from turning rancid).

Jojoba Oil - Liquid Desert Gold

Seeds on a Female Jojoba Bush, originally uploaded by kretyen.

Obtained from the seeds of a desert shrub (Simmondsia chinensis) native to Arizona, California and Mexico. The “oil” is technically a liquid wax that solidifies under 10 degrees Celsius (50F). It is made of wax esters and contains several fatty acids: eicosenoic, docosenoic and oleic acid. Its Oxidative Stability Index is 60 – so it has a long shelf life, but castor oil and coconut oil have an even longer one. Jojoba’s most important characteristic is that is resembles the human natural skin sebum. This makes jojoba a very desirable oil for cosmetics and skin care. Either the oil as it is, or certain molecules derived from jojoba (jojoba alcohol, jojoba esters and isopropyl jojobate) are very important in cosmetics.

Jojoba has very little odour of its own, and along with its excellent shelf life, it makes a great base for oil perfumes. I find it particularly useful for customers with dry skin or those who complaint that perfume just doesn’t last long enough on their skin. Either using a jojoba-oil based perfume, or applying a little jojoba oil on pulse points before applying the scent really helps in preventing the scent to absorb too fast into the skin and disappear.

Jojoba is one of the more expensive oils for body and skin care, so it is often not used on its own, but rather blended with other oils, or added as a nutrient to soaps later in the saponification process as to preserve as much as its skin moisturizing properties.

Jojoba oil can also be used as an eye makeup remover, and in facial elixirs along with other rich but fast absorbing, non-comedogenic oils such as squalane oil, rosa mosquetta oil, apricot kernel oil, etc.

Almond Goodness

Almond (Prunus dulcis, syn. Prunus amygdalus) is native to the Middle East. It is believed to be one of the first trees cultivated by humans, as it requires no grafting and can be grown directly from the seed. The Jews consider it to be one of the 7 species with which the land of Israel is blessed. The word for almond, “Shaqed”, is spelled the same and sounds similar to the word that means to study well and with due diligence.

Although in culinary terms, the almond is often referred to as a “nut” the part of almond used is considered a kernel in botanical terms. It is the seed of the almond fruit, similarly to the kernels of apricots, peaches, plums etc. If you live in an area where almonds are grown, you may get a chance to eat them as a fruit in late spring or early summer; at that time, the fruit is young and unripe, still green, ands resembles a little fuzzy unripe peach and is eaten as is, or dipped in salt, or even can be pickled. It has a mildly sour taste and an interestingly crunchy and fuzzy texture. In late summer, the kernels are crunchy but milky in flavour, and taste a lot like blanched almonds. When the fruit is finally ripe the kernel hardens and has a brown skin that is edible but can be removed by blanching in hot water or soaking in cold water overnight.

Almonds are an excellent source of calcium and vitamin E and is rich in monosaturated fat. Similarly to olive oil, it helps reduce the levels of LDL cholesterol in the blood. Almond has an interesting and mild flavour and texture which makes it ideal for pastries and desserts. Almond paste is very important in many classical Italian and French dessert recipes that have become popular world-wide (i.e.: macaroons). Also, almond meal can be also used as a partial substitute for flour in recipes thus reducing the amount of carbohydrates in pastries and desserts. An almond milk can be prepared by grinding blanched almonds, soaking them in water and than straining. The almond fat and other nutritional components will emulsify into the water and create a beverage that has a milky appearance and texture. Rosatta is a popular fragrant North African beverage prepared from an almond syrup of both bitter and sweet almonds, diluted in water. Orange flower water can be added as well. Almond butter is a delicious substitute for peanut butter for those suffering from peanut allergies. Almonds are also very popular in ice cream desserts and Indian kulphi. However, almond also lends itself beautifully to savoury meals, added to salads, garnishes for rice dishes.

The raw almonds are the most nutritious way to enjoy your almonds health benefits and flavour. Unfortunately, due to almonds grown in the USA are pasteurized so there are no true raw almonds that come from the USA. Roasted almonds, although some prefer their flavour, are often salted, and also the heat involved in the process transforms the monosaturated oils in the almonds into less advantegous types of oils. This is true for most nuts as well – they are best eaten raw.

Almond oil is expressed from the edible almond kernels and has a very mild, slightly sweet and nutty aroma and a sweet mild flavour. It is an excellent emollient that softens and conditions the skin and is used in many bath and skin products, including soap. It can be used on its own or blended with other oils for a full body massage. It is also a great moisturizer with a neutral scent and is relatively fast absorbing. Try using it as is instead of a body lotion or simply add a tablespoon of almond oil to your bath to get a soft, clean skin.

Although I don’t use it in my kitchen, almond oil is said to be a versatile oil to use as a substitute for olive oil in salad dressing. Having a high smoke point of 495ºF, it can also be used as a cooking oil (albeit not a cheap one!). I would be curious to see how it works in desserts such as moist cakes that call for vegetable oil instead of butter. If you have any experience cooking with almond oil I would love to hear your ideas and if you can share a recipe – all the better!

Virtues of Olive Oil

Mediterranean Gold, originally uploaded by Kuzeytac.

Olive (Olea europaea) is native to the east basin of the Mediterranean ocean, whose other fragrant family members include jasmine, lilac and osmanthus (aka sweet olive). Although olives can be grown in other places successfully (i.e.: California), the best olive oils are those grown in the region. I am, of course, impartial to the olive oils grown where I come from: the Western Galilee in Israel. Since biblical times, this was the region of olive oil. Perhaps it’s all Jacob’s fault, as he blessed his son Asher (whose tribe inherited this part of the land): “me Asher shmena lachmo, ve hu yiten ma’adanei melech” (Genesis, XLIX, 20) - Translation: “out of Asher his bread will be fat, and he shall yield royal dainties”.

The plant's uses are not limited to food: the oil was also used in coronation rituals, in cosmetics, toiletries and last but not least - in "oil candles" (see picture above). Pure virgin olive oil of the highest quality was used in the Jewish tabernacle and temple Menorah to keep an eternal light at the holy place. And this is what the Hanukkah story is all about - the miracle of one little can of oil that instead of one day, lasted for 8 days, until consecrated, pure olive oil will be brought from the Western Galilee to Jerusalem.

Two Olive Trees, originally uploaded by elkost.

Although the trees are not very tall (they grow about 8-15m high at the most), they grow a thick trunk that becomes hollow with age. The olive trees require no watering (except for when the trees are very young, in the first couple of years after planting). These are hardy trees that are used to the dry conditions and can survive no rain for many months. Tending the trees, besides the harvest, requires some tending to after the harvest season: pruning the trees, aerating the earth around them by plowing and fertilizing (usually with cow manure) once the harvest is over. Aside from that, the trees are pretty much left to themselves for the rest of the year.

The harvest takes place in the fall, after the first rain washes the dust off the olives and before the rain season begins (which will spoil the fruit). This usually happens in late October and early November. Most olive growers are Druze and Arabic families who grow the same olives on their estate for hundreds of years. The harvest season is intense and quite stressful as all the work has to be done between the 1st rain and the 2nd rain. Failing to do this on time will result in loss of crops or an inferior olive oil. Therefore, the extended family usually drops everything else – work, business and school for the kids – to make sure the olives are all off the trees before the 2nd rain. All ages participate in the harvest, including young children (even toddlers) and the old, who can at least help with sorting out the olives (i.e.: chucking out the spoiled ones and those infested with worms) and putting aside those suitable for pickling. The green (unripe) olives contain more oil than the black ones. Most of the fruit is pressed into oil, but some is pickled (usually you would take out the bigger, nicer looking olives for pickling), and of course the very ripe black ones would be set aside for special preparation (see more below under “Culinary Uses”).

In my region, the harvest season has now been extended into an “Olive Harvest Festival” to celebrate the region’s historical treasure and to promote peace between Arabs and Jews through cultural celebrations such as music, dance, and of course – food with olives and olive oil.

The Olive Oil Plant 1, originally uploaded by Omri Suissa.

The olives are all brought to the olive pressing house, which functions as an olive-oil co-op. Each family’s crop will be weighed before pressing, and the family will in return get an equivalent percentage to their contribution of the oil produced. A set percentage remains with the pressing house, as a form of payment.

Olive oil is the only oil expressed from a fruit (rather than a seed or a nut). And is the only one that is truly cold pressed. There are three grades of olive oil:

Virgin olive oil, which is produced from lightly pressing on the olives and requires no filtration. It is produced from grinding the olive fruit into a paste, traditionally using millstones, which are now replaced with steel drums. The paste is than placed in a centrifuge to mechanically separate the oil from the paste (the paste sinks to the bottom). This grade is the most desirable grade for food preparation and for consumption, and has the highest levels of antioxidants (which account for its slightly bitter taste). Some virgin olive oils are also filtered to get rid of the cloudy residues. Extra virgin olive oil is processed the same as virgin olive oil, but also “satisfies specific high chemical and organoleptic criteria (low free acidity, no or very little organoleptic defects)” (Wikipedia)

Grade A oil is obtained by further pressing the olive fruit which remained from the virgin oil production, and requires some refinement.

Grade B oil is produced from extracting the remaining fruit in hexane.

Another grade, which is called pomace oil, is produced by using the residue of fruit used fro grade B oils, and also grinding the pits of the olives, which also contain oil on their own. This process may also require some extraction with solvent (hexane). These are mostly valuable for soapmaking and not so much for cooking or cosmetics.

Chemical Makeup:
Contains mixed triglyceride esters of oleic acid and palmitic acid and of other fatty acids, along with traces of squalene (up to 0.7%) and sterols (about 0.2% phytosterol and tocosterols) (Wikipedia).

Health Benefits:
To name a few of the main ones:

- Lowers the “bad” cholesterol levels in the blood while preventing oxidation of the “good” cholesterol in the blood
- Cardioprotective benefits (i.e.: reduces the risk of coronary heart diseases, when used instead of less beneficial fats in one’s diet).

- Helps to balance omega-3 fats and omega-6 fats.

- Anti-oxidant. Interestingly, the elderly Druze in the Galilee touted a morning routine that involved drinking a glass of virgin olive oil on an empty stomach, to promote health and longevity. Also, the oldest woman in recorded history, Jean Calment, credited her longevity and her healthy skin to deliberately use of olive oil in her diet.

Cretan olive harvest, originally uploaded by Peace Correspondent.

Culinary Uses:
The ripe (black) or unripe (green) fruit can be pickled in salt water.
The green olives need to be cracked or slashed and soaked and rinsed in water for several weeks first to remove their bitterness; than pickled in brine (water and salt) and spices of choice (usually wedged lemons, whole cloves of garlic and a few dried hot peppers will suffice) for about 2 months, or until the olives developed their typical pickled-olive colour and their bitterness has subsided drastically.
The black ones can be pickled immediately, or layered with coarse salt in a basket to preserve. After 3 months the black brine olives will be ready to serve: rinsed with water, drained, and than sprinkled with olive oil and fresh herbs of choice (rue leaf is a classic addition).

Olives are an indispensable condiment, served with Mezze (traditional Middle Eastern appetizers and salads), made into tapanades, added to Martinis, sandwiches and more.

Olive oil is best used fresh, rather than a cooking or frying oil. My favourite salad dressing is a simple squeeze of lemon juice from ½ a lemon (if you squeeze it by hand some of the lemon essential oils drip from the peel to the juice) and about 2 Tbs. of extra virgin olive oil. Really you don’t need anything else to make a perfect salad dressing, not even salt or pepper.

I like drizzling olive oil onto pasta after it’s been cooked, with or without the tomato sauce.

A simple bread dip can be made by blending together olive oil and balsamic vinegar and/or soy sauce. A clove of garlic is optional. It’s a great substitute for butter and really goes fantastically well with freshly baked bread. Another condiment I grew up on was “Za’atar”, a combination of wild herbs, primarily hyssop, with a touch of wild mountain thyme and white mint (when available), sumac and sesam seeds. These are either sprinkled on yogurt cheese (“Labaneh”) or mixed into a paste with the olive oil and used as a spread or a dip for pita and other regional flat breads.

Steamed vegetables, when fresh and in season, don’t need much more dressing up besides olive oil. Try using a drizzle of olive oil and a touch of sea salt or fleur de sel on steamed broccoli, brussles sprouts or asparagus. It will transform both your health and your cuisine.

Similarly, you can use olive oil in potato puree. Mash the potatoes with a little bit of the water they were cooked in, a touch of salt, a tablespoon or two of extra virgin olive oil and a dash of thyme. And the same trick with yams is out of this world yummy.

Skin-Care Properties:
Humectant, moisturizing, anti-oxidant. It creates a protective film on the skin, absorbs moisture from the air yet without clogging the skin or interfering with its cell activity (breathing, shedding, regeneration, etc.).

Aegean Pearl -- Baby Olive, originally uploaded by Kuzeytac.

Beauty and Body Care Uses:
Olive oil is used in both skin care and hair care products, incorporated into body lotions, salt and sugar scrubs, shampoos and conditioners. Castile soap was originally a soap made of olive oil as the only fat, and it is a very mild soap though without much lather – it has wonderful cleansing properties without drying the skin and is gentle enough to use on babies. The Druze from the nearby village made castile soap like that from the olive pomace and it was mild enough to wash babies clothes in it (we’d grate it to make soap flakes) but also powerful enough to remove some tough stains.

The oil itself can be used as massage oil, and will keep the skin smooth and moisturized. Applying virgin olive oil to the scalp before shampooing will help reduce dandruff or flaky itchy scalp. It can either be applied as is or warmed up first as a warm hair-mask (cover your hair with plastic bag and a towel to keep the heat on the head). Olive oil can be also applied to the tips of your hair if it’s dry and also as an all-natural, simple styling product (just don’t put too much!).

For more Mediterranean beauty tips incorporating olive oil, read Helg’s excellent “review” of olive oil on Makeup Alley. What else do you use olive oil for? Please share your wisdom by commenting below.

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