For those who don’t live in rural areas or have some personal or familial connection to farming, agriculture can seem like a distant concept. Many still adhere to romantic notions of farming and foodways — small, family-owned farms where the work is done by hand and the fruits of the harvest are sold at market in the nearest town.
While the organic and local food movements are building momentum for a return to a modern version of this idyll, there’s another trend in 21st-century farming that deserves attention: accelerating technological advancements that boost sustainability and improve output. Here’s how sustainable cotton farming is changing what we eat, what we wear and how we interact with the planet.
Less Water, More Cotton
Agriculture isn’t possible with a steady supply of water. Although some crops, such as wheat, can get by with relatively little water and others, like rice, literally need to be standing in it, nothing that grows can go completely without it.
And that makes farming a challenge in drought-prone areas. Farmers in California and the American Southwest always have to worry about where their water’s coming from. Recent droughts have underscored the need for better conservation practices.
It’s not much of a stretch to say that cotton itself is a water conservation strategy. Much of the country’s cotton acreage is “dryland,” meaning it doesn’t rely on regular irrigation (which can drain aquifers in arid areas). In places that do require irrigation, new technologies deliver water directly to each plant’s roots, reducing the amount of water lost to evaporation on hot days.
Better Cotton Without the Pesticides
Pesticide use was once another “given” in modern agriculture. There are simply too many insects and microbes that want to harm commercial crops, the thinking went — they can’t possibly fight them all with their natural defenses, no matter how hard they try.
Well, modern science has an answer: selective breeding and gene modification. This sounds like science fiction, but it’s very real. In fact, cotton was one of the first crops to be successfully modified to produce a natural pesticide against a common (and devastating) pest, the tobacco budworm. Known as Bt cotton, the resultant strain is now widely used in the developing world, where the pest was particularly problematic.
In the United States, it was the boll weevil that devastated cotton populations during the 19th and early 20th centuries. There’s no strain of cotton that naturally defends against the weevil, but a fierce eradication program has eliminated the bug in all but a handful of southern counties. With fewer weevils to eat their cotton crops, farmers across the southern United States have far less use for pesticides than they once did. That’s great news for our lakes, rivers and oceans, which are all negatively impacted by pesticide runoff.
Sustainable Cotton Farming for the Win
Cottonseed oil manufacturing shouldn’t be a black box. Neither should sustainable cotton farming. It’s important that this story get told — mostly because it’s so optimistic. After all, if you think about how far we’ve come in the past half-century, can you imagine what we’ll accomplish in the next?
For commercial kitchens (and high-volume household kitchens, too), frying presents significant logistical challenges. Aside from the safety issues surrounding the use of open vats of hot oil, durability and flavor consistency rank high on the list of concerns. Different oils rise to these twin challenges with varying levels of success. Here’s why cottonseed oil is a cut above on both counts — and why growing numbers of chefs are trading out other cooking oils for cottonseed oil recipes.
Impressive Shelf Life
According to a landmark study that looked at the chemical properties and subjective attributes of cottonseed oil, including its palatability relative to other cottonseed oil flavors, cottonseed oil’s shelf life is longer than just about any other non-hydrogenated oil’s.
What does “shelf life” mean in this context? In short, the length of time that an oil container can sit at room temperature without compromising the subjective quality or physical integrity of the oil. While there are a range of factors that affect a particular batch’s shelf life, including unique attributes of the surrounding environment, cottonseed oil outperforms other oils on a consistent basis. That means less wasted oil for infrequent cooks.
Stability in the Fryer
Perhaps even more importantly, cottonseed oil appears to be more stable than other oils in repetitive frying operations. The chemical reasons for this are fairly technical, but the takeaway is that cottonseed oil lasts about half again as long in the fryer as other popular frying oils. That’s important for several reasons:
- It allows restaurants to keep food costs under control, buying less oil to produce the same amount of food
- It keeps diners happy by reducing the rate at which the flavor of cooked food seeps into the oil and compromises its taste
- It keeps kitchens running smoothly, reducing the frequency of oil changeovers that can interrupt operations during busy periods
- It improves worker safety, limiting contact with open vats of hot oil during changeovers
- It’s great news for home cooks who want to produce restaurant-quality meals in their personal kitchens
Durable oil has another benefit: consistency. This is one of the biggest “wins” for cottonseed oil fans: The oil’s impressive durability ensures that successive food batches cooked in the same oil taste roughly similar to one another. If you’re frying up potato chips in a factory, you want an oil that keeps the chips produced for Peoria on par with the chips destined for Denver. Ditto if you’re presiding over a Friday night fish fry that’s churning out pound after pound of cod or whitefish.
Cook to Your Heart’s Content
Some kitchen-dwellers and diners love cooking science. Others prefer to, well, cook and eat. But whichever side you come down on, it’s hard to ignore evidence right in front of your eyes. Cottonseed oil recipes achieve impressive consistency of flavor thanks to the oil’s above-average durability. If you’re looking to control your frying oil flavors, you may have your answer.
It’s not particularly controversial to say that fried food tastes good. Let’s be honest: Would you rather sink your teeth into a golden filet of beer-battered fish or a tasteless, out-of-the-box plain filet that’s in dire need of seasoning? For most folks, the choice is clear.
But cottonseed oil’s flavor is more irresistible than most cooking oil flavor profiles. Here’s a brief look at why this is the case — and why cottonseed oil should definitely be in your cooking repertoire.
Subjective Cottonseed Oil Flavor Analyses
Believe it or not, some people make a living conducting flavor analyses of cooking oils and other culinary ingredients. (Sounds like a great job, doesn’t it?)
In a landmark study that measured the subjective flavors of cottonseed oil relative to other cooking oils, CSO came out at or close to the top on metric after metric. Participants described the oil with positive adjectives like “woody,” “nutty” and “buttery.” They were less kind to other oils, such as sunflower oil and soybean oil, using words like “painty” and “rancid” (ouch) to describe them.
When applied to popular foods, including fish and potato chips, the positive associations continued. Participants were particularly keen on the clean, neutral flavor profile of the oil, noting that it allowed the underlying flavor of the cooked food to shine through. Other oils dominated the foods’ flavors, reducing their palatability.
What Makes a Great Cooking Oil Flavor Profile?
The science of flavor is actually pretty complicated. It revolves around various families of organic molecules that either exist naturally in the oil or arise during cooking or heating. In cottonseed oil, one of the most important components of pleasant flavor is linoleic acid, a lipid that also contributes to lower levels of inflammation and boasts other health benefits. Many other oils either don’t have enough linoleic acid or have it in combination with unpleasant-tasting ingredients.
What It Means for Your Kitchen
Cottonseed oil’s attractive flavor profile is great news for your cooking habits. Compared to standbys like canola oil and soybean oil, cottonseed oil has a wider range of culinary uses: deep frying, pan-searing, baking, even drizzling on salads. Thanks to some of the same molecules that enhance its natural flavor — polyunsaturated fats like linoleic acid, for example — it’s also more stable than typical cooking oils. In fact, it’s often said that cottonseed oil mimics the rich flavor and shelf stability of hydrogenated oils without the unhealthy effects of hydrogenation.
Cottonseed Oil Gourmet?
It’s worth mentioning that some of the country’s most prominent and innovative chefs use this tasty oil on account of its unique flavor profile. In fact, cottonseed oil might be one of those rare things on which both the experts and masses agree. No matter what foods you like to make in your kitchen, cottonseed oil has a tasty answer.