Leave it to the Canadians to transform "industrial rapeseed oil" into one of the world's most prized cooking oils. How could oil one uses to make machinery hum possibly be made consumable? Well, after fifty years of plant breeding and research, what should appear but a highly regarded cooking oil under the more appealing name of canola oil. Under its new name, rapeseed oil has become the third most important plant-extracted cooking oil ranking only after palm and soybean, and surpassing old-timers like peanut, cottonseed, and sunflower oils in worldwide production.
Canola oil, a contraction of the words Canadian and oil, has for some years been Canada's most widely used food preparation oil and commonly referred to there as lear oil for "low erucic acid rapeseed oil." As a point of fact, a major element distinguishing canola oil from its industrial rapeseed oil cousin is the amount of erucic acid permitted in the oil by government standards. Regulations, both in Canada and the United States, allow no more than 2% of this toxic fatty acid in the food product while industrial rapeseed oil hovers around 45%.
The name rapeseed is from the Latin "rapum" meaning turnip, which is a relative of the rape plant, as are rutabagas, Brussels sprouts, and mustard. The species Brassica may have been around somewhere east of Eden when Cane was cultivating mankind's very first field. Apocryphal? Well, perhaps, but it is among the oldest cultivated crops known to man. Used as a culinary ingredient in China and India, it is mentioned in ancient Sanskrit literature as far back as ca. 1500 BC and first recorded in China ca. 2500. Primarily grown in Western Canada, the plant grows three to six feet tall and produces yellow flowers that, in turn, produce seedpods. The pods are about one-fifth the size of pea pods and contain about twenty tiny round black or brownish yellow seeds. Each seed is about 40% oil. Crush 'em and voila - canola oil.
Considering that Canada's pride is mild in flavor and is chuck full of health benefits, it should come as no shock that it is in great demand in kitchens all over the world. How healthful, you ask? Well, it has 6% saturated fat; the next lowest is safflower oil at 9%. Health advocates believe that, as with olive oil, the "cold press" extraction method yields the purest flavor and most nutrients. No chemical solvents are used and the heat of the oil is allowed to reach only about 150 degrees. Consumers pay a premium price for "cold or expeller pressed" oil as only 35% of the oil can be extracted from the seeds. More often found on supermarket shelves at lower prices is a product extracted with chemical solvents or high speed presses that generate heat and diminish health benefits.
The neutral flavor of canola oil inspires a wide variety of uses. It can be blended with other more expensive oils such as nut or olive to extend them before adding to sauces or vinaigrettes. It also is less prone to separation when blended with the vinegar or acid of a salad dressing than other vegetable oils and remains liquid when refrigerated. It holds up well to heat when sautéing vegetables or meats. And finally, by using 20% less oil than the amount of solid fat called for in pastry, one can create a delectable crust that will not provoke paroxysms of guilt for those watching their saturated fat intake.