Culinary algae oil: Science fiction to science fact

[Global] Many decades ago science fiction writers began brandishing vat grown food as the ultimate specter of our dystopian future. They envisioned a planet with a population so vast that feeding it only from farm animals and agriculture would destroy it.

“Raising animals for food contributes more greenhouse gas emissions than all forms of transportation combined. The climatic impact of animal agriculture is staggering, as are other environmental problems associated with it,” read a December 2017 Scientific American piece entitled “Lab-Grown Meat Is on the Way.”

It’s science fiction no more. If you haven’t been paying attention, labs have been culturing meat cells to produce ground meat and foie gras, and milk and egg white cells to produce those foods. Bizarre? Revolting? Not if you think of the agricultural repercussions on this planet of feeding 7.2 billion people.

Science fiction has become science fact

If the idea of “cultured” food is too disturbing maybe a vat-grown culinary oil would be easier to, uh, digest. In October 2015 Thrive Culinary Algae Oil came onto the market. (No, it’s not derived from pond scum, Lake Michigan or your kids’ aquarium.) After screening more than 100,000 strains of algae, researchers discovered, in the sap of a German chestnut tree, a white algae that was a source of oil with a good fat profile. The chestnut algae strain was crossbred with other strains to achieve an even more desirable nutrient profile.

Scientists (the plant is in Peoria, Illinois) place the algae in sterile stainless steel fermenter tanks and feed them plant sugars which the algae converts to fat. Then they dry and expeller-press the algae oil, refine and bottle it. Culinary algae oil looks, feels and tastes similar to canola or grapeseed oil.

The big difference isn’t in flavor or texture though, it’s in its fat profile: one tablespoon of algae oil contains 130 calories and .5g of saturated fat, about 4 percent. That’s the lowest percentage of saturated fat among cooking oils. Olive oil contains 14 percent saturated fat, canola 7 percent, and coconut 87 percent. Culinary algae oil contains the highest level of monounsaturated (good) fats, a remarkable 90 percent fat. Olive oil boasts 74 percent, canola 63 percent and coconut 6 percent.

“Algae oil is high in DHA (docosahexaenoic acid), one of the two omega-3 fatty acids we need for long-term physical and mental health,” says Andrew Weil, M.D. “Studies have shown that supplementation with DHA from algae oil can lower triglycerides and boost HDL (“good”) cholesterol levels … familiar foods (already) fortified with algae oil include cheese, soymilk, fruit juices, sauces and tortillas.”

Is algae oil actually good for cooking? On salads? I’m a suspicious, picky, health-conscious chef. Algae oil has passed my acid test with its sustainability, health benefits, delicate taste and high smoke point (485 degrees F), higher than peanut and canola oils. Algae oil is fast becoming a beloved staple: it’s excellent for sautéing with a slightly nutty, popcorn flavor … and light and delicious on salads, where I use less because of the oil’s silky, less viscid quality.

If you wish to diversify, give the assertive olive and coconut oils a bit of a well-deserved vacation or replace the ho-hum canola or questionable peanut oils, I urge you to add this new oil to your repertoire. It’s guaranteed to bring you gently forward into the 21st-century food revolution.

Kimchi Fried Rice (Kimchi Bokumbap)

Cooked rice firms after a day and holds together best for fried rice. Serve this comfort food for lunch with soup and a vegetable namul.

  • Yields about 8 cups, 4 to 6 servings
  • 1-1/4 cups diced pork loin or boneless, skinless chicken, about 10 ounces
  • 2 tablespoons soy sauce, as needed
  • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
  • 6 tablespoons algae oil or vegetable oil, divided
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 1/2 cup diced green onions, 4 large, divided
  • 6 cups day-old cooked sushi rice
  • 1-1/2 cups diced kimchi, about 8 ounces
  • 1 tablespoon Asian sesame oil for seasoning

Mix pork or chicken, soy sauce, and cornstarch together in a small bowl, and set aside. Heat wok or deep 14-inch skillet with 2 tablespoons oil over medium heat. When oil is hot, pour in eggs and when they begin to set, scramble eggs lightly. When eggs are fully set but not hard, transfer to a cutting board. Dice eggs into 1/2- to 3/4-inch cubes and set aside in bowl.

Reheat wok or skillet with 2 tablespoons oil and when hot, stir in meat mixture. Stir-fry until meat is done, 4 to 5 minutes. Stir in 1/3 cup green onions. Transfer meat to bowl with eggs.

Reheat wok or skillet with remaining 2 tablespoons oil, and when hot, spread cooked rice into the pan. Allow rice to heat through without moving it. If desired, allow rice to sit until crust forms. (More oil or a nonstick skillet will keep rice from sticking and crusting onto pan.)

Toss hot rice with kimchi, eggs, and meat, and heat through. (Add a small amount of water to deglaze if rice sticks to pan.) Fold in remaining green onions and Asian sesame oil.

To Serve: Pile hot fried rice into small bowls and serve.

Vegetarian: Substitute cubed, firm tofu, tempeh or 1-1/2 cups shelled frozen edamame (green soybeans) for meat. Or omit meat and increase eggs and kimchi.

Dinner Party: Prepare the elements of this dish. Finish steps 4 and 5 just before serving.

Source: Adapted from “Discovering Global Cuisines” by Nancy Krcek Allen

Classic Mustard Vinaigrette

I mostly dress my salads with oil and then season with a bit of Eden red wine vinegar and salt and pepper. I like mustard vinaigrette for vegetable salads. I find olive oil too strong for mustard vinaigrette so the algae oil is ideal. Substitute 1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil for the algae oil if you wish for a mild olive flavor.

  • Yields 6 to 8 ounces
  • 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
  • 3 tablespoons red wine vinegar
  • 9 to 12 tablespoons algae oil

Set your bowl up so that it won’t move. A damp paper or cloth towel wrapped around the bottom forms a solid base. Place Dijon mustard into a mixing bowl. Add vinegar and whisk well to combine.

Measure out oil/oils into a container with a spout or lip. Slowly, drop by drop, whisk the oil into the acid-mustard mixture. If you go too quickly, the vinaigrette will break — it won’t be able to break up the oil droplets and emulsify them quickly enough. When the vinaigrette begins to visibly thicken and emulsify, increase the drops of oil to a thin stream. Taste the vinaigrette with a carrot or celery stick before you add all the oil. You may adjust the flavors of the vinaigrette with oil, acid, sweetener, salt and pepper, and herbs.

If your vinaigrette breaks place a little more mustard into a clean mixing bowl and slowly, drop by drop, whisk the broken vinaigrette into it. Taste and adjust. This will keep for months. Save your arm: make vinaigrette in a blender.


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