Infused oils let cooks mix and match flavors, experiment in seasonings

When Randall Stappenback opened Olive Chattanooga two years ago, he discovered that cooking with infused oils was virtually unheard of in this area. He recalls customers to his North Shore shop were drawn through its doors more from curiosity than culinary skills.

"My main objective when customers walked in was to educate, get them to try it. Over time, you discover how you like using the oils and it becomes fun trying them with different foods - kind of like getting a new smartphone and figuring out what it can do," says Stappenback.

After 10 months, he noticed his customers weren't asking how to use the oils anymore, but requesting specific flavors. Simultaneously, the popularity of infused oils was permeating the restaurant industry and, by last summer, was an acknowledged culinary trend. Since then, he says, the number of home cooks trying them has continued to climb.

Infused olive oil is cooking oil that has been flavor-enhanced with herbs and other seasonings. Olive oil has long been known as a healthy form of cooking, so the infusion of a variety of flavors only adds to its popularity.

Infusions have become popular with home cooks because of the number of ways in which they can be used - marinades, sautées, dressings for pasta or salad greens - and the easy way they can be mixed and matched with foods to see which ones they make pop.

"Now the everyday homeowner can go back in the kitchen and have fun - kind of like being in a chemistry class," Stappenback says. "The combinations are endless. I have a black pepper-infused oil that's really good. I drizzle it over baked potatoes as a healthy alternative to butter."

Rae Bond, executive director of the Chattanooga-Hamilton County Medical Society, uses a variety of infused oils in her cooking.

"I use Meyer lemon-infused olive oil and balsamic reduction on caprese salad," she says. "The infused olive oil makes all the difference, adding a fresh, light touch. I use garlic-infused and rosemary-infused oils as well, especially when I'm grilling vegetables."

Former Chattanoogan Gloria Miller Bowman of Murphys, Calif., combines lavender-infused oil with confectioner's sugar and milk to frost brownies.

"The combination of the chocolate and the fragrance of the lavender is amazing! You only need a smidgen (of lavender oil)," she says.

Karen McAllister Guethlein, potter and owner of The Brick Kiln, likes the combination of rosemary-infused oil, kosher salt and fresh-baked bread.

"I will throw a clove of fresh garlic in any oil I have in a skillet on very low heat and let it infuse to give whatever I'm cooking a yummy, garlic flavor," she says. "There are so many ways to infuse oils, and it doesn't have to be anything fancy."

Mia Cucina, two blocks down Frazier Avenue from Olive Chattanooga, also sells infused oils to local cooks for $1.25 an ounce.

"I have garlic-, lemon-, basil- and blood orange-infused olive oils," says manager Hannah Corkern. "The lemon is great with fish. Blood orange is fantastic in a vinaigrette over a salad. The garlic is one that goes everywhere. It's really good tossed with pasta or sauteed vegetables."

Most of Olive Chattanooga's bottled oils sell from $17.95 to $19.95. Its truffle-infused oils are $30 and $31.

Truffle oil is a top-quality olive oil infused with either white or black truffles. It is not a cooking oil, but a finishing oil that should be used to enhance foods after preparation.

For newcomers to the infused-oils idea, there is a wealth of recipes on the Internet to make your own hot or cold infusions. There are also clear warnings on the importance of sterile bottles, the potential for botulism when making garlic-infused oil, and prevention of bacteria growth on herbs/organic ingredients that have been washed but not completely dried before going into the oil.

Stappenback says he sees a mix of customers who make their own and others who prefer the convenience of bottled oils.

"Every now and then I even get somebody who makes it themselves but will come in here to compare what I have with the taste of what they've made," he says, chuckling.

Free taste tests are welcome at Olive Chattanooga, a savvy marketing technique employed every day the shop is open. Customers may sample any of more than 40 varieties of olive and balsamic oils. More often than not, Stappenback says, the customer leaves with a purchase, but it's an oil they know they like and won't be a waste of money.

"I have a zero return rate," he adds.

As clients have experimented with flavors, they've sent some of their favorite combos back to Olive Chattanooga to be passed along to other customers,

"We have lots of ways people letting me know how they use it. We have a Persian lime extra virgin olive oil that can be used to sautée vegetables in. The blood orange oil is good on any Asian dish. Or you can substitute it for the regular oil you'd make brownies with, and it adds a hint of orange to chocolate brownies," Stappenback suggests.

He says he uses the Persian lime infusion to kick grilled-chicken tacos up a notch. After grilling and dicing the meat, he puts it on a soft tortilla shell, drizzles the Persian lime oil over it, then adds lettuce and sour cream.

He also suggests mixing Persian lime and coconut white balsamic oils, then marinating white tilapia in it.

"It's a perfect sweet-sour, a good tropical flavor base on fish. Just slide it into the oven and bake the fish for 15 to 20 minutes at 350 degrees," he describes.

Article by Susan Pierce, Times Free Press

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