International Recipes and Cooking Around the World

Red Palm Oil: How to Buy, Store and Use It

Pouring red palm oil into a storage vessel

Image Creative Commons by Martin H.

Red palm oil has gotten a fair amount of press lately — some good, some bad. It's been touted as heart-healthy, high in antioxidants, a miracle ingredient. It's also been decried as a threat to the rainforest and scourge of orangutans everywhere (or at least in Borneo).

So what's the deal with red palm oil? What is it, and where does it come from?

Origins in Africa

Clusters of palm oil fruitFor centuries, the people of western and central Africa have been squeezing and straining the fruit of the African oil palm (Elaesis guineensis) to extract a deep reddish-brown oil from its pulp. This red palm oil has a rich, smoky flavor and is used for frying and for flavoring West African soups, stews and beans. It has been said that red palm oil is to African cuisine what olive oil is to the Mediterranean, or butter to Northern Europe.

With the slave trade, West Africans carried their culinary habits to tropical areas of South America and the Caribbean. Red palm oil, called dendê (DEN-deh) in Portuguese, is a hallmark of Brazil's Bahian cuisine.

Health Benefits of Red Palm Oil

Much has been made of possible beneficial effects of red palm oil on your health. While claims of miraculous powers are certainly overblown, palm oil does get its rusty-orange hue from high levels of powerful antioxidants like beta-carotene and lycopene. Unrefined palm oil also contains large amounts of vitamin E and is high in levels of “good” mono-unsaturated fats. It also has no cholesterol.

Nevertheless, fat is fat, with lots of calories per spoonful. So the best strategy in the end is to use it in moderation, as you should with all fats and oils.

Red Palm Oil vs. Palm Kernel Oil vs. Coconut Oil

It is important to know the difference between two types of oil that come from the same tree. Red palm oil is the good stuff, derived from the fleshy pulp of palm oil fruit. On the other hand, palm kernel oil is a clear, mildly flavored oil that is mechanically squeezed from the nutty kernel at the center of the same palm oil fruit.

Because it is cheap and has a long shelf life, palm kernel oil oil is used for baked goods and for buttering theater popcorn . Palm kernel oil is much higher in unhealthy saturated fats, and it has none of the antioxidant powers of is more colorful sibling. Because if this, it is best to avoid palm kernel oil if you can.

You should also take care not to confuse either red palm or palm kernel oil with coconut oil, which is similar, but comes from the coconut palm, a completely different tree.

Palm Oil, Sustainability and the Environment

Oil palm plantation in IndonesiaIn recent years, many food producers have been phasing out unhealthy trans-fats in processed foods. A good thing, right? Well, many of those same producers are using palm kernel oil as a substitute. Wide swaths of rainforest have been cut down in Indonesia and Malaysia to make way for large plantations of oil palms. The resulting environmental destruction poses a grave danger to an ecologically rich region of the world and is crowding out already threatened species, including orangutans.

Therefore, when buying red palm oil, it’s definitely worth it to shop around and buy from a producer that uses sustainable farming and harvesting practices.

How to Buy and Store Red Palm Oil

Most African, Caribbean, Brazilian and many Middle Eastern markets carry red palm oil. You can also order it online.

As with olive oil, it’s best to buy virgin, cold-pressed, unrefined red palm oil if you can. Refining gives the oil a lighter colored oil and softer flavor, but it also removes many of the components that give palm oil its health benefits.

Palm oil is solid at room temperature and will keep fresh for quite some time in your pantry. If you won't be using it that often, storing it in the refrigerator can extend its shelf life.

How to Use Red Palm Oil

West Africans love red palm oil and use it in amounts that would make most Westerners gasp. Fortunately, you can transform dishes using much smaller amounts.

In the kitchen, use red palm oil like you do olive oil. To add another layer of flavor to dishes, stir a dollop or two into soups and stews, or drizzle it over beans and vegetables.

Red palm oil has a high smoke point, so it is ideal for sauteing and frying. Given it's higher price, you might scoff at using palm oil alone for deep frying. Instead, try cutting it with a more affordable, neutral oil to give deep-fried foods a hint of palm oil's color and flavor taste without all the cost.

Now that you're an expert, why not make some delicious dishes using red palm oil?

Recipes Using Red Palm Oil

Akkra

Black-eyed pea fritters

(Senegalese black-eyed pea fritters)

Vatapá

Vatapa Brazilian seafood stew

(Brazilian seafood stew with coconut milk)

Moqueca

Moqueca Brazilian fish and coconut milk stew

(Brazilian fish and coconut milk stew)

Ceebu Jen

Ceebu Jen (Senegalese fish with rice and vegetables)

(Senegalese fish with rice and vegetables)

Palm Oil Fruit Image Creative Commons by Wikipedia: Cayambe
Palm Oil Plantation Image Creative Commons by Achmad Rabin Taim

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