Sunflower oil is produced from the seeds of a variety of sunflower (Helianthus annuus). This variety has been bred to produce an oil that is very high in monounsaturated fatty acids, a healthier form of fat. The seeds contain about 40% oil, however they are small and somewhat difficult to harvest and process. Sunflower crops are commercially grown in warmer climates throughout the world and about 80% of these crops are turned into sunflower oil. Sunflower oil is not commonly used in the United States and makes up only about 10% of all vegetable oils sold there. However, it is much more popular in other areas of the world including Australia, India, and areas of Europe and Africa. Today sunflower oil is the fourth most common vegetable oil in the world.

The oil is mostly a mixture of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fatty acids, a more healthy form of fatty acids, and contains very little unhealthy saturated fats. The main fatty acid in sunflower oil is oleic acid, a monounsaturated fatty acid. It also contains a small amount of linoleic acid, a polyunsaturated fatty acid. The ratio of linoleic acid to oleic acid in the oil varies depending on where the sunflower crops are grown. Crops grown in warmer climates have higher levels of oleic acid while crops grown in cooler conditions have more linoleic acid. Sunflower oil does not contain any linolenic acid, another polyunsaturated fatty acid found in some vegetable oils that can form unhealthy trans fatty acids during processing. Unlike other vegetable oils, both forms of sunflower oil contain a reasonable level of vitamin E, an important vitamin and antioxidant.

Types of sunflower oil

Sunflower oil can be found in two forms, linoleic or high oleic sunflower oil. Linoleic oil was the original form of sunflower oil and was the most commonly used kind until recently. It is made up of about 65% linoleic acid, 21% oleic acid, and 11% saturated fatty acids. Because this form contains a high level of linoleic acid it is more prone to oxidation and spoilage. It is often hydrogenated commercially to make the oil more stable to resist oxidation. Unfortunately, this hydrogenation often produces harmful trans fatty acids. Linoleic sunflower oil is sold as a liquid oil and can be found in margarine and a variety of baked goods.

The high oleic form of sunflower oil was first sold in 1985 and is the main type of oil sold today. It contains has a much higher level of oleic acid than the linoleic form and actually contains a higher percentage of monounsaturated fatty acids than olive oil. The oil is made up of over 80% oleic acid, 10% linoleic acid, and 10% saturated fatty acids. This means that the oil is more resistant to oxidation and therefore has twice the shelf life of other vegetable oils. Because this form is more stable there is no need to hydrogenate the oil and risk adding trans fatty acids. Additionally, high levels of oleic acids are though to lower cholesterol levels and the risk of heart disease. High oleic sunflower oil can be found as a liquid oil and in baked goods.


Because sunflower oil is not commonly produced in the United States it can be more difficult to find in the grocery stores than canola oil, corn oil, and other types of vegetable oil. It also tends to be more expensive than regular vegetable oil. However, it has many benefits that make it a worthwhile addition to your kitchen. It has a light taste and does not give off any odors when it is heated. It has a high smoke point, making it useful for high temperature cooking, and stays pourable even when stored in the fridge. The oil can be used in a variety of foods, including salad dressings, baked goods, and for frying and stir-frying foods.

Sunflower oil is one of those secret ingredients in the Russian cuisine that makes root vegetables tolerable and even delicious. The tradition of eating onions, potatoes, and beets comes a history of impoverished serfs who had no purchasing power and had to rely on the harvests of their tiny land plots. As a precaution against cases of grain spoiled by frost, they planted root vegetables that were certain to survive the winter. Thus, for these slave laborers, the potato was a difference between deadly starvation and life. In the 20th century, the former serfs gradually acquired purchasing power, but since traditions die hard, the root vegetables remained an essential part of the diet.

Sunflower oil is the secret to making the plain onion and the potato taste good. In one traditional dish, the sweet, tangy oil is poured over bitter and crunchy onions. So the combination is sweet, crunchy sticks of onion that are also moist and gooey. Sometimes, the potato becomes a third player in this melody of onion and sunflower oil. A common Ukrainian and Russian breakfast dish fuses boiled potatoes with onions in sunflower oil. In this case, it is best that the onions are diced and the potatoes are boiled until they are flaky and likely to fall apart. These flaky potatoes are put onto a plate with diced onions drenched in sunflower oil and then crushed with a fork into either lots of small clumps or into paste. The clumpy slices of potato on a fork are then dipped into sunflower-oil soaked onions and eaten. Once you bring up this potato clump to your mouth, it has bits of onion stuck onto it by the sunflower oil which acts as a sort of a glue. By this point the potato itself becomes greasy and mushy as it has absorbed the oil. What you've got in the end is a piece of mushy potato that tastes like sunflower oil with crunchy bits of onion as a topping. Another taste usually comes into the equation as it is customary to eat sliced herring as a part of the potato-onion-sunflower oil meal.

Although sunflower oil is something to make root vegetables taste sweet, it's more than just a dining experience. It has also managed to enter literary folklore. Since sunflower oil is a key plot element in Russia's most famous novel of the 20th century, Mikhail Bulgakov's Master and Margarita, dining and reading become intertwined. It is probably necessary to have eaten sunflower oil as a part of meal to understand its meaning in the book. Within the book, sunflower becomes associated with demonic magic. The devil uses it to prove to a smarmy bureacrat, the president of the governmental literary association, that his and the state's doctrine of materialism that excludes spirituality and magic is wrong. The sunflower oil is the proof of the existence of the supernatural: The devil promises Berlioz that a magic and fated occurence will prevent him from reaching a writers' meeting. This fatal occurrence is brought about by Berlioz's slipping on sunflower oil spilled by a woman Annushka before he is to board the train that would take him to his meeting. As the sunflower oil makes him fall under the train and get decapitated, the reader witnesses the first fulfillment of a magic spell in the novel.

Is it it a coincidence that the very sunflower oil that turned ordinary hum-drum boiled potatoes and peeled onions into a sweet, tangy dish is the very same ingredient that introduced magic into the drab world of bureaucrats, trains, and state-sponsored literary meetings? I can't say but I do know this dish of onions and sunflower oil somehow managed to leave the kitchen and sneak its way into a work of literature. Was it by some act of transfiguration? I just don't know. Only the Devil knows how it truly came about.

Notes: Some variations of the sunflower oil and onion mixture include a bit of vinegar. If you are going to try making this dish, you may want to add some as well. If you have a lot of time at your disposal, it may be worthwhile to marinate the onion in vinegar a few hours before adding the sunflower oil.

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