Note: Before we begin, I’d like to say that this article is not arguing the virtues or lack thereof of plant-based oils, nor is it promoting them over the use of animal-based fats, such as butter or lard. Rather, it is meant to bring us one step closer to producing for ourselves something most of us use commonly, both in a better way for our health—grown organically, rendered simply—and the health of the environment. In other words, there is no need to get snarky. Surely, we all realize that neither butter nor duck fat are the best choice for salad dressing.
On the road to self-sufficiency, there are lots of everyday items we run across that seem either impossible or too far-fetched for home production. In some cases, this is true: One can’t very well grow rice in England or wheat in the tropics, so the right answer is probably to minimize or cut out the use of certain things with regards to what can be produced locally. Such is life, and such is the case with cooking oil.
There is a lot to be said for choosing the right cooking oil for the job, and culturally, we certainly go through our trends: Olive oil is good for your health, vegetable oil is clogged arteries in a bottle, and on it goes. Truth be told, no oil in and of itself is likely the best choice for our health, but sometimes they fit the bill: salad dressings, the occasional plate of chips, or even a little skin moisturizing.
Whatever the case, the point is that, one way or another, for those seeking to be self-sufficient, the ability to make cooking oil at home could prove very useful. The good news is that there are loads of seeds and nuts well suited for making oil, so many are likely possible whichever climate we are in. The bad news is that, while not a difficult task, making oil—even small-scale production—does require a little up front investment in machinery.
The Skinny on Oil
While there is a lot of noise out there about which oil is best, how bad this or that oil is, I try to look at it like this: No oil is perfect, and that is especially true for highly processed oils, which is what our supermarkets mostly stock.
Some oils, like olive oil or sesame oil, aren’t particularly good for cooking because they have a low smoke point, but they are very flavorful when used in dressings or raw sauces. Most of the time, these oils are cold-pressed (or extra virgin) and thus still have active enzymes, providing health benefits but also making them a bit more heat sensitive. These tend to be the oils we view as better choices, but when they are cooked, all of those benefits go out the window anyway.
Other oils, like coconut or peanut, work better under fire and fry, and this is because they carry more saturated fats, which remain more stable in heat. The problem really arises when industrial vegetable oils we buy at the store have gone through horrible processes to make them: From being grown in mass-scale monocultures with pesticides to using a slurry of chemicals to extract the oil, the end product is no longer natural and no longer of any real healthful value.
Regardless, the essence that is oil is pure extracted fat, so it’s never the healthiest of options and should be used sparingly. But, for home producers, this is good news. We shouldn’t be producing/consuming too much oil anyway, and the oil we do consume is much healthier when from a cold press than a factory. So, producing our oil is a win-win.
The Cold Oil Press
With a few exceptions such as olives, avocados, and coconuts, the oils we will be making are from seeds—pumpkin, sunflower, flaxseed, etc.—and nuts, such as almonds, hazelnuts, and pecans. Regardless, all of these can be put into our hand-cranked and electric home cold press, most of them whole, shell and all. (Peanuts need to be shelled, large nuts may need to be crushed first, and olives should be dehydrated.)
For the sake of expediency, we will just address the typical cold pressed extraction used with most seeds and nuts. For these, there are cold pressed oil expellers available (Piteba is probably the most respected brand) and for around a hundred dollars. Essentially, what these machines do is take a nuts and seeds with over 25% oil content and applies enough pressure and minimal heat (under 48.9 Celsius/120 Fahrenheit) to remove the oil from them.
There are some methods by which people use presses are circumvented with grinders, blenders or food processers, but those are better suited for oils from fleshier sources, like the olives, avocadoes and coconuts. The methods do work well. Unfortunately, these sources of oil are not available to everyone. However, seeds and nuts of some sort can be grown virtually anywhere people (at least large populations of them) live.
The Basic Process (For Oil That Isn’t “Processed”)
The process for making cold-pressed, plant-based oils is actually quite easy, but it can be a little time consuming.
Firstly, there’s the prep work. The seeds or nuts need to be washed with special attention to remove any stones or dirt as this can not only soil the oil but, worse, damage the machinery. Most seeds and nuts—not walnuts, hazelnuts or peanuts (I know, a legume)—can be done without shelling. Once the seeds are cleaned, they should be sun-dried to roughly ten-percent moisture content (While the ideal moisture varies for each type of seed or nut, ten-percent is a good all-around number). A rougher rule is to sun-dry them for a full day.
Once sufficiently dried, the source of the oil will be put through the machine. Generally, hand-cranked presses are heated by small oil lamps to encourage the seeds or nuts to release more oil. The press will be cranked slowly, about 45 turns a minute, and the seeds are feed into expeller screw, which pushes them into a press screen under high pressure. The oil drops through openings into a container, and seed/nut cake continues on to the end of the screw.
The oil extracted will contain impurities and must be allowed to rest for about 24 hours, after which time the liquid can be decanted and stored in a sealed bottle out of the sun. The seed/nut cake created in the process can be used for a high-protein animal feed or organic fertilizer. Making your own healthier, organic cooking oil is actually that simple, and truth be told, if most of us limited diets to only the oils we can produce at home, our health would probably much better for it.
Growing Nuts and Seeds Crops for Homegrown Cooking Oil
The Ugly Truth about Vegetable Oils (and Why They Should Be Avoided)
Nut Processing and Oil Extraction
The Truth About Fats: The Good, the Bad, and the In-Between
Why It’s Healthier to Cook with Lard than Sunflower Oil