Alternative uses for common cooking oils

For cooking, I prefer to use oils/greases with a high concentration of saturated fatty acids (not omega-x fatty acids and especially not trans fats) to avoid unwanted chemical reactions during cooking (conversion of cis double bonds to trans, generation of free radicals, etc.), so for hot meals, we use butter, Schmalz (rendered animal fat) or coconut oil.  For cold meals, like salad, we use cold-pressed vegetable oils, mainly extra-virgin olive oil (unrancid) in Mediterranean-themed salads.

Through other bloggers and some experimentation, I have discovered that there are a lot more possible applications for oils other than cooking.  The following are the uses that I recommend to get the most of your precious plant oils and to use them up before they go bad.

Coconut Oil:

Like many other people who are unhappy with standard toothpastes, I use coconut oil for oil pulling.  Coconut oil is high in lauric acid, a fatty acid with antibacterial and antifungal properties.  Unlike sunflower and sesame oil, which are traditionally used in oil pulling, coconut oil does not stain teeth yellow; it actually makes them look whiter (without bleaching).  I actually did extensive research on oil pulling for a research project proposal and was convinced that oil pulling with coconut oil can at least (1) greatly reduce the chance of mass colonization by Candida albicans (a pathogenic yeast) and Streptococcus mutans (a pathogenic bacterium) and (2), after reacting/combining with saliva, act as a ‘soap’ that can access small gaps in and between teeth.  If you have healthy teeth, oil pulling once or twice a day is probably enough, but I’ve been needing to also thoroughly brush mine with a salt mixture, since I have recently had very rough, demineralized teeth and am working on remineralizing them.

Coconut oil is touted to have many other ‘alternative’ benefits (Dr. Axe), especially when virgin (minimally-processed).  I’ve tried using coconut oil on my skin, but it made my skin smell bad and felt like it was clogging my pores, which makes sense when considering that long fat molecules were coating my skin.  The experience may be different for different skin types and climates.

I also use coconut oil to remove the dust from candles.  This basically replaces the dust layer with an oil layer, which helps prevent further dust collection.  I have a lot of real-wax LED candles that often need ‘dusting’.  Coconut oil is as safe to burn as waxes, and coconut oil is even used in combination with wax to make candles.  I haven’t tried this, because I don’t burn candles anymore.

Safflower Oil:

This is my skin conditioner, especially after a shower.  My skin, especially dry flaky parts, absorb this oil very well.  Because it’s made from a thistle (hardy, fast-maturing plant), it’s also rather inexpensive.

I use an oil squirt dispenser to make application easy and quick.  I feel oily at first but end up with (surprisingly) super-smooth, healthier-looking skin an hour or so later.  I started out using sunflower oil on my skin, since I saw that it is in a lot of baby skincare products, but I found the oil to be greasy.  It also made my skin ‘sparkly’, which I didn’t like, but other people might.  Safflower oil and sunflower oil both have a high content of linoleic acid (about 75% and 66%, respectively), an unsaturated essential fatty acid that can be converted by skin cells to other compounds that benefit the skin and therefore the body.  The oil might also help the skin absorb and store oxygen molecules, which are nonpolar and dissolve well in the nonpolar oil compounds.

Since it is so soothing to my skin, I also use safflower oil as a shaving oil and aftershave to get a close shave without razor burn.

Rosemary infused Rapeseed Oil:

Rant-like side note:  That’s right, I use rapeseed oil.  Couldn’t they come up with a better name?  Well, it’s basically canola oil, which is made from the rapeseed plant, but canola oil is, by definition, low in erucic acid, and many canola oils in the USA are derived from genetically modified plants.  The concern was that erucic acid might cause heart disease, based on animal studies and the toxicity of Lorenzo’s oil, a pharmaceutical containing erucic acid, even though there haven’t been reports of toxicity from dietary rapeseed oil (wikipedia).  Nevertheless, rapeseed has been bred naturally, on both sides of the ocean, to have lower EA concentrations.  Now, since everyone-and-their-mom uses canola oil, the canola plant is being genetically modified to have other qualities such as herbicide resistance to make ‘weeding’ easier.  This may sound like a good thing, but I’ve learned to ask, ‘Good for whom?’.  This issue requires more attention and another blog post, since choosing organic foods or not is now an everyday thing.

I use this Housewarming present (not Gift, which translates to ‘poison’ in German) of rosemary infused rapeseed oil (the rosemary was likely pressed along with the seeds to make the oil) to clean and condition my bamboo cutting boards.  Many people think that bamboo boards are not sanitary and are difficult to maintain.  I live in a damp and generally overcast area and have not had issues with mold on bamboo boards or utensils.

bambooclean
Ingredients for cleaning and conditioning bamboo

Bamboo is easy to sanitize by spraying and wiping with vinegar or citric acid/lemon juice spray, rinsing when necessary.  I do not use baking soda or detergent, because they remove the oils, leaving more holes behind for microbes to populate.  To condition the cutting board, I squirt a few drops onto the board and wipe with a paper towel to remove any stubborn fat particles.  I then squirt several more drops and use the palm of my hand to spread the oil into a thin layer and let this absorb overnight.  I’m sure that other rosemary infused cooking oils, like olive oil, would work.  Rapeseed/canola oil is fairly balanced in short and long chain fatty acids, so I think that it is suitable for reaching deep into the wood AND forming a waterproof layer at the surface.  The rosemary scent is due to the ‘essential oil’ compounds, which hopefully we all now know are small molecules with therapeutic and antimicrobial properties.  The pressing method also captures the hydrosol (volatile, water-soluble) compounds and anti-oxidants (notably carnosic acid), which help preserve the essential oil compounds and may also prevent microbial growth.  Since I want to destroy and displace, not trap, bacteria and yeast in the wood pores, I prefer to use the herb infused oil instead of plain rapeseed oil.

Flaxseed oil:

Also called ‘linseed oil’, flaxseed oil is relatively high in omega-3 fatty acids, namely alpha-linolenic acid (about 47%).  The one that I use was cold-pressed with vitamin E and stored in a dark amber bottle, both important to prevent oxidation of the α-linolenic acid.  I did a test of the oil after reading this helpful article on SFGate (How to know when flax is rancid).  It passed the appearance (golden yellow, not cloudy) and aroma test (nutty, grassy), but the taste, although green and nutty, was also bitter.  The bitter taste could be from the extra vitamin E. Flaxseed/linseed oil is used for many non-culinary uses, such as treating wood (after processing).  Although I planned on using it regularly as a vitamin supplement, I only think about it when I have a bad stomach ache or constipation.

Coming soon:

Edible makeup!  I am working on mixing oil with fruits and flowers to create skin-supporting makeup that is shelf-stable and safe to eat.

My dried herbal First Aid kit: Stinging nettle leaves

Disclaimer:  This post and blog fall under the heading ‘Personal Experiences’ and is meant to interest, educate and inspire.  All information and instruction is given without the intent to harm or control the reader in any way.

StingingNettle
Stinging Nettles in local forest

It may seem strange to be healing with a plant that can hurt you, but the #1 dried herbal in my First Aid kit is stinging/burning nettle (Urtica dioica).  Stinging nettle tea is in my medicine cabinet and portable First Aid kit.  Even though the well-known weed grows everywhere, I use commercially made ready-to-go stinging nettle tea bags (which also contain fennel and blackberry leaves) wrapped in paper envelopes [Lord Nelson].  If you factor in the work involved in (carefully) collecting, drying, wrapping, labeling and packaging the raw herb, commercial tea bags are a good deal.  Commercial tea bags are also travel friendly, since they are less likely to attract suspicion than loose herbs.

I use stinging nettle tea for:

  • Cuts & Scrapes:  Moisten and press against wound (or let moisture from wound activate tea) as a compress.  Dried stinging nettle leaves are astringent/promote wound closing (due to tannins), antiseptic/prevent infection (tannins/phenols, organic acids, zinc ions) and promote skin healing (tannins, vitamins A, C & E, zinc ions).
  • Insect Bites:  Moisten and hold against bite.  For me, it was relieving while pressed against the skin, but the itch quickly came back after removing the ‘poultice‘.  Spraying a tincture of fresh nettle leaves in grain alcohol (vodka) or vinegar might be more effective, since ethanol and acetic acid extract both water-soluble (ex: vitamin C, ions) and water-insoluble (ex: vitamin A) compounds from herbs and helps them penetrate deeper into the skin, which is mainly water-impermeable.  This can also help relieve the pain and raised bumps due to stings from stinging nettle.
  • Nosebleeds:  Moisten and gently plug up nostril.  I sometimes have long-duration nosebleeds that need to be stopped before I lose a lot of blood.  I tried other teas (chamomile, pomegranate), but stinging nettle  was the most effective.  Since fruit and flower teas are also astringent, this difference is probably due to the high vitamin and mineral content of stinging nettles.  For external wound healing, vitamin C, vitamin E and zinc ions are commonly applied, as well as the amino acid lysine, and these are all found in stinging nettle leaves (less vitamin C in dried leaves).  I also drink nettle tea to promote blood clotting (see below).
  • Excessive Blood Loss:  Drink tea from leaves steeped in (preferably) hot or carbonated water.  The tea has a very mild, uncharacteristic (green?) taste, and it is very diuretic.  Stinging nettles have a high vitamin K1 content.  Vitamin K1 (Phylloquinone, Koagulationsvitamin) is an essential vitamin found in leafy greens (chlorophyll) that is used by the body to create coagulation factors.  The leaves also have a considerable amount of iron (14% DV/100 g), so stinging nettle tea is used for blood building.  In fact, stinging nettles can and have been used as food, basically as a substitute for spinach, since they provide many nutrients.  For example, 100 grams can supply 90%–100% of the daily value of vitamin A and significant amounts of calcium, iron, and protein [Int. J. of Food Science, Volume 2013 (2013), Article ID 857120].  Vitamin A works with iron to prevent anemia [Mayo Clinic].  *Warfarin (Coumadin(R)), dicoumarol (sweet clover) and related anticoagulants competitively inhibit vitamin K activity, so stinging nettle may interfere with these medications.  Other possible interactions of stinging nettle are those with blood pressure medications and water pills [University of Maryland Medical Center].

Since I try to use stinging nettle every day for detox and blood building, I also want to make my own dried leaves and infusions with fresh leaves for the greatest benefits (some vitamins are destroyed with excessive heating, drying, sunlight and time).  The stinging hairs are deactivated through drying, heating or soaking.

A very helpful resource on stinging nettle chemical composition and usage was provided in Dr. Christopher’s Legacy:  Stinging Nettle by K. Vance.

My favorite chemistry gardening hacks

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Veggie growing inspiring calendar, hand-drawn and designed by Long Island organic farmer Courtney Pure (https://www.etsy.com/shop/TheCoopDesignShoppe). Print-out cheerfully colored, to work in my mostly white kitchen, by me.

It’s not too late to start working in the garden if you live in a temperate climate region.  In addition to growing herbs and fast-growing vegetables, you can start planning for an Autumn/early Winter harvest.  Here are some chemistry-based tricks to boost your confidence and your yield.

Soak seeds in tea or vinegar to promote quick sprouting.  Water awakens the dormant plant inside the seed, but it needs to permeate the protective seed coat, which is mainly composed of cellulose, to get there.  You can weaken the seed coat by puncturing it, but since you could damage the insides, I prefer soaking seeds in leftover tea or in vinegar overnight.  The acid gently breaks up the tight-knit, rigid seed coat structure via acid hydrolysis. For peas, beans and similar ‘seeds’, the protective pod has already been removed and the pea has been preserved by dehydration, so to become active again, the pea only needs to be rehydrated by soaking in water.  If conditions are good, you can get fresh peas pods from planting peas in 2 months.

Dip cuttings in cinnamon to promote rooting.  Salicylates promote rooting, and natural sources of salicylates can be used as natural rooting hormones [Int. J. Advanced Biological and Biomedical Research, Volume 2, Issue 6, 2014: 1883-1886].  If you have a salicylate intolerance/low tolerance, you already know these sources.  This post on rooting hormones for cuttings from PreparednessMama lists 6 of them: yourself, apple cider vinegar, cinnamon, honey, aspirin and willow extract.  I’ve had success dipping cuttings (like rose stems) or garlic cloves in cinnamon and sticking them in wet sand.

Ferment weeds to make a cheap, organic fertilizer.  While you could make a fertilizer from compost tea (taking a clump of composted material from your compost heap and adding water), if you don’t have good composted material at the moment, or if you want a strong, easily absorbed fertilizer, you can take the bounty from intense weeding and ferment it with water in a polypropylene or glass container for a few days or until bubbles stop forming.  Strain the liquid into a watering can and apply near roots.  Fermentation (digestion by microbes) frees nutrients, like potassium and magnesium ions, from the plant material.  This also occurs in soil at a slower rate.  Fermented stinging nettles make a rich fertilizer.

Create copper barriers to keep out snails and slugs.  There is some controversy over whether this works.  However, following the reasoning in this wiki and empirical evidence from this science fair project, I would say that copper barriers do work, but, contrary to the advice given by many popular gardening bloggers, the copper needs to be partially oxidized.  A thick copper band or woven fence allows for regions of elemental copper (copper(0) electrode; anode) and regions of cuprous oxide (copper(I) oxide electrode; cathode).   The electrolyte-rich fluid from the snail/slug completes the circuit (yikes!), but the current is low, so the snail is not killed.  I have copper tape around raised beds, but I have note seen snails/slugs interacting with it.  While the copper barrier is not a foolproof system, I still think that it is better than introducing snail poisons, like copper sulfate, into the garden.  Once, I found a perfectly intact dead mouse in the garden (part of country life), and I believe that he was poisoned after eating a poisoned snail.  On this topic, to naturally reduce the snail population, attract birds and rodents to your garden, but don’t put down poison.

Plant specifically colored flowers to attract bees.  I’ve seen bees on all colors of flowers, but their favorites seem to be blue and yellow, and they aren’t attracted to frilly red flowers.  Unlike us, bees interpret some ultraviolet wavelengths as color.  This is how bees see certain yellow flowers:  hidden patterns.

Practice good companion planting to reduce the number of pests.  Companion planting is simply planting plants closely together that help each other out, often by repelling pests (for example, releasing chemicals into the air) or by creating a better soil environment (for example, attracting beneficial nitrogen-fixing microbes).  A very nice thing is companion planting guides, like this one in Mother Earth News, created from many observations by many people over many years, so you don’t need to know the biochemical basis (only now being studied in many cases) to use this valuable resource.  I especially like how the strong scent of my catmint (Nepeta × faasenii) can repel most pests, including aphids, mosquitoes, ticks and mites.  It is also very drought tolerant and low maintenance, and the bees love the numerous tiny purple flowers.

A more nutritious way to store mushrooms

I have started the practice of storing Champignons (Portobella, Cremini, button mushrooms, etc.; Agaricus bisporus) unwrapped in the supermarket container on the window ledge in the pantry.  The pantry is a small room that is generally at a relative humidity of 55-80% and temperature of 9-12 degrees Celsius in the winter.  Every morning it is aired out by opening the window and door.

The air circulation helps to prevent fuzzy mold formation and rotting of the mushrooms.  Today, I saw a pack of mushrooms in the supermarket that had condensation in it and the mushrooms were on the brink of getting mushy but were still plump.  After unwrapping them and airing them for an hour by the pantry window, they are no longer wet but still a little slimy.  I am hoping for sunshine tomorrow.

Mushrooms
Stored champignons with intermittent air circulation and sunlight.  Still firm after 5 days in pantry after storage/display at supermarket.

Exposing mushrooms to sunlight, in particular ultraviolet light, has at least two beneficial effects.  The first is that intense UV light can kill mold and bacteria that might be hanging out with your ‘shrooms.  The second is that UVB irradiation increases the Vitamin D content of mushrooms.

Many fungi, including mushrooms, contain the precursor for vitamin D2.  The previtamin is ergosterol, and under UVB radiation (harmful to human cells), ergosterol is converted to ergocalciferol (vitamin D2).  Most foods do not contain enough Vitamin D to meet the daily requirement (without eating a ridiculous amount every day).  Studies have been done which confirm that eating UVB irradiated mushrooms can help prevent Vitamin D deficiencyVitamin D3 (cholecalciferol) is also generated by UV-mediated conversion; this occurs in your skin.  However, UV light is damaging to skin cells and causes radical-induced damage and cancer if antioxidants are not present or destroyed with prolonged exposure.  Vitamin D2 rich foods are probably a safer way of obtaining Vitamin D (along with other nutrients) than sunbathing.  Though the two types are not equal, Vitamin D2 can be converted in the body to Vitamin D3, which is the active form.  A note that I want to add is from [Br J Gen Pract. 2008 Sep 1; 58(554): 644–645]:

Deficiency of vitamin D is particularly high among dark-skinned individuals living at northern latitudes. One study has assessed the prevalence as being around 14.5% in the UK’s adult population, but up to 94% in South Asian adults living in the UK.7 Further studies have shown that other non-white ethnic groups within the UK have increased prevalence.8