Here Comes the Sun(flower) Oil

By Joe Sevier


Joe Sevier
Explore the spectrum of sunflower oils—from light and tepid to dark and musty.
Explore the spectrum of sunflower oils—from light and tepid to dark and musty.

Sunflower oil is one of the most prominent cooking oils used from Eastern Europe to Central Asia and parts of the Middle East, and it’s finally making a comeback in its ancestral home— what we know of today as the Americas. Although after years of cultivation, it might not be the same sunflower oil the pre-Americans favored. “The oil we’re producing is a high-oleic variety and only about 10 to 12 years old,” says Dale Johnson of Century Sun Oil based in Wisconsin.

The high-oleic oil is packed with omega-9 fatty acids: high in heart-healthy unsaturated fats, low in saturated fats, and totally free of trans fats. It also boosts shelf life and yields a high smoking point (up to 450°F, depending on the level of refinement). It’s much different from old sunfl ower seed varieties, which are categorized as mid-oleic or linoleic, with mid-oleic being the most highly produced variety worldwide and neither carrying the health caché that high oleic purports.

Yeah, but how do they taste? In addition to nutritional differences, sunflower oil can be purchased in a range of refinements. In large part, I found that you can judge a sunflower oil by its color. I tasted eight sunflower oils, produced in both the United States and Europe. The samples ranged from a very light and pale yellow (similar to any refined vegetable oil) to a dark, golden amber. From lightest to darkest, those oils include:

Spectrum Culinary Organic Expeller Pressed Sunflower Oil (~44¢/oz.)
La Tourangelle Organic High Oleic Sunflower Oil (~41¢/oz.)
Century Sun Oil High Oleic Cold Pressed Sunflower Oil (~77¢/oz.)
Chumak (in Ukrainian, ЧУМАК) Refined Sunflower Oil (~9¢/oz.)
Golden Kings of Ukraine Raw-Pressed Sunflower Oil (~28¢/.oz)
Driftless Organics High Oleic Cold Pressed Sunflower Oil (~75¢/oz.)
Chumak Unrefined Sunflower Oil (~9¢/oz.)
Golden Kings of Ukraine Cold-Pressed “Domestic Ukrainian” Sunflower Oil (~27¢/oz.)

The lightest of these, produced by American organic oil behemoth Spectrum Culinary, is also the most tepid in flavor and aroma. It has become one of the few oils Chef John Shields of Smyth in Chicago uses in his kitchen. Spectrum’s flavor profile is totally neutral, even more so than grapeseed oil, which allows them to use it for everything from herb infusions to deep frying.
On the other end of the scale, Driftless Organics is a mainstay in the kitchen at Cellar Door Provisions, also in Chicago, where Chef Ethan Pikas uses it to make chile crunch and loves the flavor it lends to baked goods and all manner of salad dressings. “It has a deeply earthy, heady, floral quality with the roundness of a good quality olive oil but a bottom end that most olive oil lacks,” he says. Of the oils I tasted, it was certainly the muskiest—and for that, the most distinct in personality. Pikas calls it the “taste of Midwestern summers,” and says he’s had great success using it to bake carrots cakes and has infused it with fennel to emulsify into buttermilk sorbet.
Owner of Driftless Organics, Josh Engel, is also a big fan of using his sunflower oil to make baked goods—although he also points out its proven track record in salad dressings and (of all things) popcorn. “We’re one of a select few producers making a single-source sunfl ower oil,” he says. In addition, Engel’s oil is unfiltered. While a lot of commercially produced oils go through a process called RBD (refined, bleached, and deodorized), robbing the oil of some of its natural character, Engel’s oil is allowed to settle after an expeller pressing. When settled, the oil is extracted from the top, leaving behind the pulp which has fully saturated the oil with its flavor.

My favorite oil was Golden Kings of Ukraine Cold-Pressed “Domestic Ukrainian,” sometimes labeled “Home Recipe.” The seeds are roasted before pressing, and the result is something like toasted sesame oil—probably not something that you’d want to use in abundance, but a little bit could sure make the right dish pop. The aroma reminds me of walnuts that have toasted for just a second too long. It’s distinct, slightly bitter, and just waiting for the right chef to figure out the best way to use it.

Another favorite, the aforementioned Century Sun, Johnson calls “minimally filtered, leaving in some sugars and waxes that will cause smoking at a lower temperature than totally refined oils,” such as Spectrum, La Tourangelle, and refined Chumak. The oil is quite pale and retains a delicate nuttiness that won’t overpower whatever you’re cooking, but will lend an extra layer of flavor, just like a good olive oil might. And while that smoking point may be lower than those lighter sunflower oils, it’s still higher than comparable olive oils, so it’s ready for sautéing, roasting, and light stir-frying.

The other oils each possessed their own signature qualities. La Tourangelle hits the tongue with no flavor, but fills the mouth with the aroma of papery almond skins, as if someone were cracking nuts right beside you. The raw iteration from Golden Kings of Ukraine and the unrefined Chumak smack of the ballpark and its musty, seedy aroma from cracking whole sunflower seeds in your mouth and spitting out the hull. And, finally, the refined Chumak, one of the most ubiquitous grocery brands across Eastern Europe, and which I used to fry breaded chicken cutlets in my unventilated, windowless New York City apartment. The resulting chicken tasted great—exceedingly crunchy, maybe slightly nutty from the oil, enhancing the caraway in the coating. But even more telling: While frying several batches of cutlets in that hovel of a kitchen, I didn’t set off my smoke alarm. I didn’t even detect a wisp of smoke in an apartment that could more often be mistaken for fully ablaze, just from barely warming up a cast iron pan. That’s reason enough to consider getting back to your American roots.

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