I’ve noticed a hack the French use to elevate their everyday meals to fantastic while keeping them healthy and easy to prepare: They add an unusual, high-quality ingredient to a simple recipe to up-level the taste and avoid boredom.
This also helps them avoid the temptation to buy unhealthy takeaway meals or turn to packaged food for a quick dish. With a touch of a well-made product, they know they don’t need to outsource to anyone for delicious food. Case in point: walnut oil.
When I was growing up in the US, I loved walnuts. My father would bring home cases of them as a gift. But it never occurred to me that you could use walnut oil to make everyday dishes taste fabulous. No one I knew used walnut oil in cooking. That is until I came to France.
The French use walnut oil in savory dishes, from meat sauces to vinaigrettes as well as in pastry-making.
The good news: it has as many health benefits as olive oil. You can read more about the benefits of walnut oil today than ever before, particularly for brain health. It’s known as one of the healthy fats.
French Walnut Oil: how and where it’s made
The French produce their own walnut oil, mainly from walnuts harvested in the Isere, Limousin, and Perigord regions.
The Perigord region has a special AOC – “Appellation d’Origine Controlée” (in English: PDO – “Protected Designation of Origin”) attached to its walnut production. This is a guaranteed quality label. It designates the geographic origin of the product and the know-how used to make it as being essential to the quality of the final product.
While China, the U.S., and Turkey are the largest producers of walnuts, the French are the second largest exporters of walnuts in the world behind the United States.
There are 3 categories of walnut oil produced in France:
1. Virgin, Cold-Pressed:
This is the finest quality and where the highest amount of nutrients are found. The oil comes from walnut pieces that are mechanically cold-pressed. Artisans can vary the intensity of the flavor by roasting some of the walnuts to be pressed.
2. Refined Walnut Oil:
This oil is made from walnuts considered of low quality. The oil’s impurities are removed through the refining process which also removes some of the nutritional benefits found in virgin walnut oil.
3. Pure Walnut Oil:
This oil is assembled from a blend of virgin and refined walnut oil. It’s usually sold in supermarkets or under generic brand labels.
How to choose high-quality walnut oil, how to store it and what to avoid:
Walnut oil is fragile :
• it can’t be stored for long periods of time
• it needs to be kept away from light, air, and heat. (I store mine in the refrigerator).
• it can’t be heated at high temperatures, so it’s not suitable for frying
• as with hazelnut, pistachio or almond oils, it’s best to buy walnut oil in small quantities and try to use up within 6 months after opening the bottle. To extend its lifespan, keep it in the refrigerator, and take out the quantity you need beforehand so it can warm up and the aromas develop.
• A good quality walnut oil will have a golden light brown color and pronounced aroma which can also be described as, well, walnut (!) or similar to toasted bread crust or crackers.
• Always select an “extra virgin”, “cold-pressed” oil. (The price can vary widely depending on the quality and origin of the walnuts used).
Two walnut oil recipes to up-level your everyday meals
1. Endive, Roquefort & Walnut Salad with a Walnut Vinaigrette:
If you’ve read my Cheat Sheet on “My 10 French Food Habits” you know I always try to begin my dinners with a salad. So this endive salad is a French classic and one of my go-to starters during the Fall and Winter when endives are in season.
It’s a wonderful mixture of textures and flavors: the crunchiness of the endive leaves and walnut pieces plus the creamy, sharp taste of the Roquefort cheese go really well together.
You can either plate this salad individually and drizzle the vinaigrette over the top or toss it in a large bowl with the vinaigrette and serve.
• Make the Vinaigrette for 2 (double the quantity for 4, etc): Whisk 3 Tb of walnut oil and 1 TB red wine vinegar
• Add salt & pepper to taste.
• Cover the leaves of endive with Roquefort or other blue cheese and then add the walnuts halves
• Drizzle the vinaigrette over the top if plating or toss in a large bowl before serving.
2. Whole Wheat Toast with Spinach and Fourme d’Ambert Blue Cheese:
The French use Fourme d’Ambert for this recipe because it is less sharp than other blue-veined cheeses. However, you can use any blue cheese you like. Serve with a green salad to make a meal.
• Pre-heat your oven to 180C/350F
• Brush the slices of whole wheat bread with walnut oil
• Spread the young spinach leaves on the bread
• Cut the cheese in strips and add on top of the spinach
• Add Salt & Pepper
• Cook in the oven for around 15 minutes
Recipes I add walnut oil to :
Carrot Cake Recipes:
I substitute 2/3 of the melted butter in my carrot cake batter with walnut oil for added aroma
Add 1 Tablespoon of walnut oil to the pan drippings at the end of cooking for a fantastic gravy to go with your roasted chicken. The walnut taste will be subtle but the gravy will be extra-delicious.
Yogurt or Oatmeal:
Mix a teaspoon of walnut oil into your Greek-style yogurt or oatmeal in the morning to start your day with healthy fats that’ll keep mid-morning hunger under control.
Where to buy high quality French walnut oil:
Amazon.com sells two high-quality French walnut oils:
- J. LeBlanc French Walnut Oil Stone Milled Cold Pressed (J. Leblanc is expensive: 16 oz costs around $27, but it’s the top quality used by French chefs and one of my favorite brands)
- La Tourangelle Roasted French Walnut Oil, 16 oz.
There are several websites that sell California walnut oil. Make sure it’s cold-pressed and food grade and not refined oil to be used for cosmetic purposes.
You don’t have to be a great cook to have restaurant-quality meals at home.
If you use an unusual ingredient like French walnut oil in your kitchen, a simple raw vegetable can be transformed into a delicious dish.
If you haven’t already, download your FREE “French Pantry Checklist” – a curated list of ingredients to up-level your meals.
And now you: Have you ever used walnut oil in your home-cooking?
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