Sustainability Book Chat
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One of the reasons we decided to start raising pigs almost 20 years ago was because I thought it was the only way we could produce our own homegrown cooking oil — also known as, lard. I assumed that creating oil from seeds and nuts would simply be too challenging for a non-professional.
In this episode, author, gardener, and oil maker Bevin Cohen talks about his book, The Complete Guide to Seed & Nut Oils. He dispels that myth that I fell prey to — that making oils at home is too challenging or even impossible for your average person. He also talks about the modern commercial process for making seed oils, and the difference between chemical processing and cold pressed oils.
The book includes instructions on growing and foraging dozens of seeds and nuts for making oil, and in our interview, he talks about walnut oil specifically. Why? Because we have a walnut grove on our farm.
But I also learned that black walnuts grow in the wild across the US, so even if you don’t have a cultivated grove on your farm, you might be able to forage black walnuts growing in the wild.
Bevin Cohen’s other books:
- From Our Seeds and Their Keepers: A Collection of Stories
- The Artisan Herbalist: Making Teas, Tinctures, and Oils at Home
- Saving Our Seeds: The Practice & Philosophy
Learn more about Bevin Cohen online:
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Deborah Niemann 0:04
Whoever you are, wherever you live, whatever size your living space, you can do more than you think to lead a greener lifestyle. In the “Sustainability Book Chat,” we are talking to authors and experts about all the different ways that achieving sustainability is within your reach.
Deborah Niemann 0:28
Hello, everyone, and welcome to today’s episode. This is gonna be a lot of fun for me, because this is something that I have absolutely zero personal experience with. Today, we are talking to Bevin Cohen, author of The Complete Guide to Seed and Nut Oils. Welcome to the show today, Bevin!
Bevin Cohen 0:49
Thank you so much for having me.
Deborah Niemann 0:51
Some of you might think his name sounds familiar, because you may have heard him a few months ago; we were talking about herbs. And it’s kind of funny, when I was reading his book, I discovered that his interest in herbs is what led to his interest in seed oils, because he needed a carrier for some of the herbal preparations he was making, and so that caused him to more seriously look at the oils he was using. And it’s so funny how those two things fit together, and I never would have guessed it.
Deborah Niemann 1:18
So, you know, like so many things today, we buy something off the shelf and we think that it got there by this magical means that must be really, super complicated. Like, you must need to have a PhD or thousands of dollars of equipment or something to make oil out of something like olives, or almonds, or whatever. And like, I always buy cold-pressed, because that’s healthier. And so, it sounds like, “Oh, it’s so simple. You just have a press, and you just press it.” And that is the thing that’s just always eluded me. I’m like, “It can’t be that simple.” And then, ironically, today as I was like reading over your book to prepare for our chat, I was munching on some macadamias. And then the light bulb went on. Like, the reason I feel like this is so hard for me to think that it’s just that simple is because when I’m chewing the macadamias—which have 21 grams of fat per ounce or something like—I looked at the bag, and I’m like, “Yeah, there’s a lot of fat in these.” Like, I’m chewing it up really, really small, but I don’t feel oil floating around in my mouth, you know? So, I guess that’s why it seems to me like, “Well, the oil must be a really integral part of all these seeds and nuts and stuff. And there’s got to be more to it than just pressing.”
Deborah Niemann 2:38
So, my first question is—and I read the book, and it really does sound that easy. Is it really that easy?
Bevin Cohen 2:45
It’s really that easy, Deborah. You know, and that’s the funny thing. When you’re at the grocery store with so many things, unless you’ve participated in making or growing or, you know, the production of these items, it’s so easy to kind of gloss over the work that goes into it. We don’t really realize what goes into all of these ingredients available in the grocery store. You know, when you visit the store, and you see an entire aisle of oils—all these different oils to choose from—it’s so easy just to walk on by, not realizing the labor that goes into it. It is simple to extract the oil from these various seeds and nuts; the mechanics are very, very basic. But there’s some labor to it. It’s labor intensive if you’re doing it on a small scale, like we do here at Small House Farm. But it really is just that easy. And that was really why we wanted to write this book, is I wanted people to realize how easy it is to create these ingredients right at home.
Deborah Niemann 3:37
Yeah. And I wrote one of the blurbs for your book, and the thing that just struck me right away is—because, like, the whole reason we were raising pigs was to have our own source of homegrown fat. Because I thought, “Oh, this has got to be easier than getting oil from plants.” And then, after reading your book, I’m like, “Oh my gosh, no, getting oils from plants looks a lot easier than raising pigs!”
Bevin Cohen 4:04
It is. But you know, there’s multiple steps to it. You know, we got to grow the plants, and harvest the seeds, and process them, and stuff. So it’s definitely… Like I said, there’s some labor involved in it. But through the book, we guide you down the path of the easiest ways to accomplish all of these things. The easiest way to grow the crops, to forage for them, to process the seeds, to prepare them for the press, running them through the press—every step of the way, we guide you to make it the easiest possible experience that you could have.
Deborah Niemann 4:32
Yeah, that’s the thing I really loved about it when I was reading. Because, like, when I first saw it, I thought, “Oh, this is just gonna tell me what to do once I have the finished product. So, either I have to figure out how to grow these things on my own, or I need to buy them in bulk from you know, a bulk food place or something like that.” And so, it was really exciting when I saw that you actually talk about growing these plants, and foraging for some of them, and things like that. It’s a very comprehensive book.
Bevin Cohen 5:03
I appreciate that. We really tried to take everything from all the way from the seed to the bottle. The entire process, for sure.
Deborah Niemann 5:10
One of the things I think that a lot of people don’t realize is just how really heavily processed foods are. And a lot of times, it’s the processing, not the plant, that makes the oil unhealthy for you. You know, like, that’s the thing with like lard and coconut oil both, is that so much of what you see in the commercial marketplace has actually been hydrogenated. And that’s why like lard and coconut oil have such a bad reputation, is because it’s the process of hydrogenation that makes it so unhealthy for you, not the actual oil itself.
Deborah Niemann 5:46
I learned a lot about the commercial processing of oils. Like I had heard, you know, there’s solvent-processed, and then there’s cold-press, and I didn’t fully appreciate what solvent-processed meant until I read your book. And I’m like, “Whoa. Yeah, I’m even more committed now than ever that if I’m going to buy an oil, it’s definitely going to be cold-pressed.” So, can you tell people a little bit about the big commercial process with using solvents to get the oils out?
Bevin Cohen 6:16
Oh, absolutely. You know, as an educator, I spend a lot of time teaching people how to grow their own food, to harvest herbs, whatever it may be. And I find that, through the education process, that although I’m fully immersed in these topics all day long, some of the most basic details I kind of start to take for granted. So, when I get out there, and I meet the public, and I have a chance to talk to them, I see that we need to really start at the foundation of these topics. So, that’s how we started the book—really starting at the foundation, talking about the history of oil extraction, as well as commercial oils and how they’re processed. And there’s so much to it that people that are just shopping at the grocery store may not really be aware of, as they’re not aware of a lot of the processes in how our food is created.
Bevin Cohen 6:56
You know, a lot of commercial oils that are solvent-extracted, the chemical that’s used to extract these oils is hexane, which is really just a couple molecules away from being gasoline. And they use this hexane as a solvent. But then at this point, there’s a ton of processing that needs to happen. These oils need to be bleached, they need to be deodorized. Right? To get the sterile, shelf-stable product that we can then go and buy. It has a high smoke point; people use it for frying and all that sort of thing. But it’s gone through such a multitude of processes to get to that point, that in my point of view it’s not something that we would consider a healthy food—not something that we necessarily want to consume, or use in our topical body products, or anything like that. When we’re talking about hexane, bleaches, deodorization, de-gumming processes, these are not words that I want connected to my food at all. And they don’t need to be, really, Deborah, because we can produce all of these oils so simply—so simply—right at home.
Deborah Niemann 7:51
Yeah. And one of the things that really surprised me was when you said that most commercially produced peanut oil has been so heavily processed that it can be consumed by people who have a peanut allergy. Like, whoa. Like, it’s so far away. And it’s funny, because that’s not actually the first time I’ve heard that nugget of an idea. Because I was at a conference for bloggers and influencers a few years ago, and there was actually people there in the vendor area from the National Peanut Association, or Peanut Council, or whatever they’re called. And one of the things they were saying was that, “Oh, even if you have a peanut allergy, you can consume peanut oil.” And they didn’t say, you know, like “the highly processed commercial peanut oil,” which now I’m like, “Whoa, they should be,” because like, I personally always buy the cold-pressed, not deodorized, unrefined… Like, I buy peanut oil because I want that peanut flavor and stuff.
Bevin Cohen 8:56
Deborah Niemann 8:56
So, yeah, when I read that in your book, I was like, “Whoa. So like, it’s not quite as simple as, ‘Oh, people with a peanut allergy can consume peanut oil.'” It’s really just the heavily processed stuff that… It just doesn’t really resemble peanuts anymore.
Bevin Cohen 9:13
It doesn’t. It shouldn’t even really be considered food at that point, I think, you know? And that’s an important differentiation to make for these folks. It’s important to realize that difference. If you were to cold-press peanuts at home and produce your own oil, that is not something that you can eat if you have a peanut allergy. That’s not safe. But these commercial, highly refined, processed peanut oils that would be “safe to consume”—in quotation marks. I don’t think they’re really as safe to consume as they want to think that they are.
Bevin Cohen 9:42
As we move towards this local food initiative—so many people are looking to grow their own food, or know their farmer, and buy local food, be healthy, and be consciously aware of how our food is being produced—our seeds and oils need to be a part of that conversation. Seed and nut oils are something that we utilize almost in every meal that we consume in one form or another. Whether we’re using it to saute vegetables, whether we’re using it to make a salad dressing, it is a part of so many of our meals, and it needs to be a part of this conversation. So, I’m really hoping that this book is going to help get this conversation started for more people.
Deborah Niemann 10:16
Yeah, I really think it will. I mean, once people realize that it’s not this big, mysterious thing… I mean, like, it sounds easier than making cheese, which we’ve been doing now for 20 years. And it’s not hard. And so, this sounds even even easier. Like, there’s less science involved in this than making cheese.
Deborah Niemann 10:34
So, if somebody wants to make their own oil, what do they have to do in terms of financial commitment to the equipment? Starting with the, like, the simplest version. Like, let’s say they’re going to go out and they’re going to buy some peanuts, or walnuts, or almonds, or pumpkin seeds, or whatever. They’re going to buy the seeds or nuts in bulk, and they want to just press them so that they can have their own homemade oil. What do they have to purchase?
Bevin Cohen 11:01
At this point, all that they would really need to get—once they’ve acquired the seeds—is just the press. And in the book, we talk about the most basic press. We started here at Small House with—the brand is called Piteba. The Piteba oil press. There’s essentially three parts to the entire machine. Very, very simple. Hand cranked; it’s got a graduated turn screw that squeezes the seeds into this chamber using pressure to extract that oil. Right? Low temperature, high pressure situation. Like I said, it has three parts. It’s a very, very basic machine. And they’re relatively inexpensive. When we got ours—now granted, this was quite a few years ago, when we bought ours. But, I want to say it was around $100. That was maybe going on a decade ago. So, the price has probably gone up a bit, but they’re still relatively inexpensive to get started with. And that’s all that you need to get started. You’ve already got the seeds, you need the oil press, a container to catch the oil in, and you’re in business. That’s all that you need to get started.
Deborah Niemann 11:01
Yeah, awesome! And I think we all have lots of canning jars that we can use for putting the oil into.
Bevin Cohen 11:04
Plenty of them! Sure, absolutely. And they work just fine for that—not only for catching the oil as it comes out of the machine, but for storing the oil later. You can use a canning jar. Absolutely perfect. Just like anything else, you keep it in a cool, dark place away from the sun and heat, and these oils are going to last quite some time.
Bevin Cohen 12:17
A thing that I see that people do so often is, with their their cooking oils in the kitchen, they always store them in the cupboard above the oven. You always see that: over the stove. And I guess it’s convenient; it’s close by when you’re gonna need it. That’s the worst place to store your oil, you know, because of the residual heat from the cookstove. You don’t necessarily want that. So, it’s important to keep your oils in a cool, dark place.
Deborah Niemann 12:38
Yeah, that is really good advice. I read… Somebody wrote that a few years ago, and I saw it, and I was like, “Oh, that’s exactly what I do.” And they’re exactly right. Like, that’s the hottest place in the kitchen, is above your stove.
Deborah Niemann 12:52
Let’s talk about some of the specific seeds and nuts now. And since we have a black walnut grove here, I’m gonna be selfish and ask you some questions about black walnuts. I love the fact that you have photos in there, because I’ve always wondered why my walnuts looks so different than the kind that you see in the store. I knew they were black walnuts, but yeah, they just look a lot different than English walnuts. And I also didn’t realize that they actually are native to North America and grow wild here. So, that was interesting to know.
Deborah Niemann 13:24
Like so, for example, just kind of take us through the process with black walnuts. Like, if you wanted to make walnut oil with black walnuts, what would you do?
Bevin Cohen 13:34
Sure. And, you know, black walnuts are a great one to get started with, because they do grow wild. Where I’m at here in Michigan—very abundant. There’s black walnuts all over the place. So, getting a ready supply of the nuts—enough to produce quite a bit oil—very, very simple.
Bevin Cohen 13:47
So, when the nuts are mature, they’re going to drop off the tree. Right? They’re going to fall off the tree, and that’s when we’re going to want to gather them up. You’ll see right away that the walnut has this green hull on it, and we need to get that off. Right? That’s the first step, is removing that hull. The easiest way to do this that I’ve found—and this is one of the tricks that we talk about in the book. I tried to include all the tips and tricks that I’ve learned over the years into this book, so everybody already has it; they don’t have to learn it through trial and error like I did. Right? The easiest way that I found to get the hulls off these walnuts is to use one of those corn-husking machines that’s used to crank to remove the kernels from an ear of corn. Perfect. You load your walnuts into that, you give it a crank, it’ll peel that hull right off of there. Leave it out. Right?
Bevin Cohen 14:30
Then we need to crack the walnut. At this point, now, we’ve got what would resemble a walnut that we’re familiar with. Once the hull is gone, you’ve got what looks like a walnut. So, we’re gonna want to crack those guys to separate the meat, the nut, from the shell. Right? And you know, this could be a labor-intensive process, finding different ways to crack these shells. There’s a bunch of choices for different nutcrackers that you can use—tabletop models, hand-crank copper fed jobs, and we talk about all of those things throughout the book as well. But sometimes, the easiest way is just smashing it— right? Using a hammer or something like that. And we don’t have to worry about breaking it up into too small of pieces; that’s kind of the goal here. We really just want to smash those things right up.
Bevin Cohen 15:10
Then we’re going to take our walnuts—we’re going to have the crushed nuts, and the shells, and all these things. Kind of a big pile of debris. And we’re going to put it into a large bucket of cold water. Right? Cold water. And they’re going to separate right out. The meat, the nut itself, is a little more dense, so it’s actually going to sink in that water, and the shell is going to float. So, we can remove that shell, clean up all that debris. Now we’ve separated our nuts; we’ve got them separate from all the different materials. Now we’re going to want to leave them out to dry. We can put them out on screens. Some folks have used your oven; you could do that on a low setting, most certainly. You know, sometimes folks will leave the door open. Let them warm up, get all that moisture out of them that was in that cold water, and at that point, they are ready to go into the press. Already being crushed up like that, it’s going to be a lot easier to feed them into the press. We’ve got a lot more surface area; we’re going to get higher yields. Having put them in the oven, now they’ve warmed up a little bit; we’re just going to coax more of that oil out as well. So, we’re going to get better yields that way as well. Run it through the press, and in no time you’re going to have more walnut oil than you’re gonna know what to do with.
Deborah Niemann 15:14
Awesome. That sounds so great! So I admit, I did not read about every single seed, because I’m like, “I’m never gonna do that.” But, maybe I missed something good. So, is there any particular seed or nut that is easier? Like, if somebody is brand-new, and they’re like, “Just just tell me which one’s the easiest. I want to start with the easiest.”
Bevin Cohen 16:14
I always recommend folks start with sunflower seeds. That’s how we got started at Small House Farm many, many years ago, by pressing sunflower seeds. They’re absolutely the easiest, in my point of view. One, sunflower seeds are easy to grow. And you’re going to get a lot of seeds, a lot of bang for your buck by growing those things—if you’re growing them. But if you wanted to purchase them, they’re relatively inexpensive, and you can typically buy sunflower seeds—black oil sunflower seeds—in bulk from a lot of different places. So, very easy to get at a low, low price, right? And then, the cool thing about sunflower seeds is we don’t have to take the shell off to run them through the press. No labor at all. Just load them right into your press with the shells on them; in my experience, I actually get better yields on my sunflower seeds if I leave the shells on than if I de-shell them. Right? So, load it right in there, all your sunflower seeds, run them through the press. It’s that simple. Easy, easy stuff. Sunflower seeds is the best way to go.
Deborah Niemann 17:26
Oh, that is so cool! Okay, I’ve gotta to try this now. Because we feed our goats black oil sunflower seeds, because it increases their butterfat. So—
Bevin Cohen 17:34
So you’ve already got them. See how easy this is?
Deborah Niemann 17:37
Yeah, exactly. And we know where to get them. And so, if anybody’s wondering, you will find these in the bird seed section of, like, your farm supply stores, garden centers—any place that sells bird seed. Like, they sell big, 50-pound bags of black oil sunflower seeds.
Bevin Cohen 17:55
And 50 pounds of sunflower seeds is going to produce quite a bit of oil. And, think about how much oil you actually use in a day. If you use it when you’re making your breakfast, what a tablespoon or two? A tablespoon on your salad dressings. You’re only using really a few tablespoons a day. And so, I always recommend folks only press what you need—maybe enough to get you through the week or something. The beauty of pressing your own oils is that they are fresh. They are the freshest oils you’ll ever get your hands on. So they’re more nutritious; they’re more delicious. Right? So, don’t press a whole bunch of them and store it in the cupboard. You might as well be buying it. Press it as you need it, a small amount each week, and it’ll be enough to get you through, and it’ll be the most delicious oil that you’ve ever used.
Deborah Niemann 18:34
I love it. This is so great! This is even more exciting than I thought it was gonna be. Is there anything else that people need to know before they get started?
Bevin Cohen 18:45
Well, you know, hand-cranking an oil press, I’ve tried to make it sound very simple, but it can wear you out. You know, when I got started, we pressed a lot of oil by hand; I’d be up all night. And I could only really get with my right arm; I could only get the rotation good with my right arm. My left arm just wouldn’t get with the program. So, it became quite tiresome. I was pressing a lot more than what I needed for personal needs. We were offering them commercially, we were selling them at farmers markets, and those sorts of things. So, for what I was doing, I found it was necessary to upgrade to a more efficient machine, if you will. But—and we talk about this in the book as well—we can just take this inexpensive hand-crank oil press and upgrade that—right?—for pennies on the dollar. Very inexpensive, and we can make it much easier to use. I walk you through all the steps to turn your hand-crank oil press into a bicycle-powered pedal press. So then, you can just sit on your bike, pedal the wheels, and it’ll press the oil for you that way. Now, that’s about as easy as it can get, right?
Deborah Niemann 19:43
Yep. I saw that, and I’m like, “Oh my gosh, that would be perfect.” Especially for my husband, because he is really into all sorts of… You know, well, he runs like half-marathons and, you know, marathons and stuff like that.
Bevin Cohen 19:57
Put him to work! Get him working!
Deborah Niemann 19:58
Yeah. Exactly. So this, for him, would just be perfect. It’s like, “Well instead of going for a run today, could you make me some sunflower oil, please?”
Bevin Cohen 20:06
There you go. You know, I got two boys here at Small House, and they are energetic, you know? So, I can just pop one of them onto the bike for a little bit, let them go. They’re having fun, it’s good for them, good exercise, you get the fresh air, all that stuff. And I can produce quite a bit of oil in no time at all.
Deborah Niemann 20:22
Yeah. That’s awesome. Well, thank you so much for joining us today. How can people find you online?
Bevin Cohen 20:29
Well, we’re certainly on social media. You know, Facebook, and Instagram, and all that sort of stuff. But the easiest way to connect with us is through our website, which is SmallHouseFarm.com. They can learn all the things about what we do here at the farm, they can order copies of book, different things that we do at Small House, our herbal products, that sort of thing. SmallHouseFarm.com. It’s kind of a one-stop shop for everything that we do here.
Deborah Niemann 20:50
Yeah. And as we were talking before, when people buy the book directly from you, you will autograph it for them before you drop it in the mail.
Bevin Cohen 20:57
Absolutely I will.
Deborah Niemann 20:59
Awesome. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Bevin Cohen 21:02
Well, thank you so much for having me. I had lots of fun chatting with you.
Deborah Niemann 21:06
And that’s it for today’s episode. You can find show notes at ThriftyHomesteader.com/BookChat, as well as a transcript. If you haven’t already done so, be sure to subscribe so you don’t miss any future episodes. You can also find Thrifty Homesteader on Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. See you next week on “Sustainability Book Chat.”