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Argan Oil - Morocco's "Liquid Gold"
This beautifully-hued oil is argan oil, a renowned culinary and beauty product almost uniquely produced in Morocco. Culinary argan oil, shown here, has a light but distinctive nutty taste somewhat similar to walnut oil or hazelnut oil.
Despite its expense – the traditional method of extraction is labor-intensive – argan oil is regarded as an essential ingredient in many Moroccan kitchens. Not only is it delicious, but in terms of health benefits, it surpasses other healthy oils such as olive oil and almond oil.
A cosmetic grade of argan oil (not for eating) is used as a beauty and therapeutic treatment for the hair, skin, nails, lips, and scalp.Continue to 2 of 13 below.
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Argan Oil - It Starts Here, With the Argan Tree
This is where argan oil originates – with the argan tree (Argania spinosa), a species indigenous to the Souss valley in southwestern Morocco. Similar in appearance to an olive tree but larger, this thorny, hardy tree with twisted branches can live up to 200 years or more with no cultivation.
The fruit of the argan tree needs more than a full year to mature from the firm green oblong nuggets shown here to rounder, softer yellow-green fruit. Once ripened, the fruit will fall from the tree – this typically occurs in July – and the fruit is then harvested and dried for several weeks until it darkens and resembles shriveled dates.
Within the dried fruit's unpalatable rind and pericarp is a nut-like stone or pit which contains one to three kernels or seeds. The kernels, when pressed, yield the highly prized argan oil.
Although argan trees and argan oil production are most famously linked to Morocco, the trees can also be found in Algeria and in Israel.Continue to 3 of 13 below.
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Argan Oil - Is It True What They Say About Goats?
Goats are naturally drawn to eating argan fruit and leaves and will climb high into the tree's branches to access them. Stories often circulate about how the fruit's undigested nuts are collected from the goats' excrement and then used in argan oil production. Commercial argan oil manufacturers and co-ops are quick to dismiss such tales as either folklore or as a dated practice which is irrelevant to argan oil production today.
Although tourists are keen to snap photos of goats in argan trees, herders are required by law to keep the animals away from trees whose fruit is destined for argan oil production, and wardens help enforce this. It's been reported, though, that when word of approaching tourists reaches some herders, they'll quickly usher their goats to the trees in hope of a tip of gratitude for the photo op.Continue to 4 of 13 below.
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Argan Oil - the Dried Argan Fruit
Here's what the dried argan fruit looks like. The nut, which is found within the rind and interior pulp, must be cracked open in order to obtain the kernels. Traditionally this job is done by Berber women, who tediously hit the nuts one-by-one between rocks.Continue to 5 of 13 below.
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Argan Oil - Interior View of Argan Fruit
This is an actual interior view of a dried argan fruit. The rind was peeled back by hand to reveal the stone. The peels are not fit for human consumption but instead are collected to be used as animal feed.
Once removed from the rind, the nuts will safely store for up to 20 years.Continue to 6 of 13 below.
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Argan Oil - Traditional Women's Cooperative
These women are using rocks to crack open argan stones or nuts at a small cooperative in the Ourika Valley, located southeast of Marrakesh. The kernels they obtain are sorted into baskets, while the broken pieces of nuts are saved to be used as fuel. Such cooperatives are common in the region and help provide much-needed income to women.
It's easy to see that the traditional method of opening the fruit and then cracking the nuts is quite laborious, as is the traditional method of extracting the oil.Continue to 7 of 13 below.
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Argan Oil - to Roast or Not to Roast the Kernels
Once a sufficient quantity of argan kernels is obtained, they will either be left in their raw state or lightly roasted. The roasting is traditionally done in a clay pan and it must be watched carefully since over roasting will result in a bad-tasting oil. The oil extracted from roasted kernels will be for culinary purposes, while the oil extracted from raw kernels will be labeled as a cosmetic grade.
Here at the Ourika Valley co-op, baskets of unroasted (left) and roasted kernels were on display and ready to be pressed by hand.Continue to 8 of 13 below.
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Argan Oil - the Stone Mill
In traditional argan oil production such as that done at co-ops or homes, the argan kernels are fed into a stone mill, called an, where they are ground to a paste with a little water. The paste collects in a vessel (the clay one being used here is called a ) where it is then kneaded and squeezed by hand to extract the oil.Continue to 9 of 13 below.
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Argan Oil - the Residual Paste
Once the oil has been extracted, handfuls of the squeezed paste are collected. There is still a little oil and water in these clay-like clumps, and instead of being discarded they will be used as animal feed.
Modern oil presses are used at some co-ops and companies to speed up the extraction process, but the fruit and nuts must still be opened by hand.Continue to 10 of 13 below.
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Argan Oil - Cosmetic and Culinary
If you're interested in trying argan oil in the kitchen, it's very important to be certain that you are using culinary grade argan oil and not the cosmetic. The two are not interchangeable.
As explained earlier, the culinary oil is extracted from lightly roasted kernels while the cosmetic grade oil is extracted from unroasted kernels. While roasting the kernels brings out desirable nutty aroma and flavor in the culinary oil, it also causes a loss of the anti-aging and healing properties found in the cosmetic oil.
Here, a small bottle of cosmetic grade argan oil is shown side-by-side with culinary grade argan oil, which has a deeper color due to the roasting of the kernels. The culinary oil in this photo was obtained from a family who presses kernels at home, so it was not commercially packaged in a sealed bottle with a label.
Note that color alone, however, is not the only indicator of which oil you have on hand. You can also determine by smell and flavor – the culinary oil has a fragrant, nutty aroma and flavor while cosmetic grade argan oil will be almost odorless and flavorless. The cosmetic oil is usually sold in smaller bottles than its culinary counterpart.
Commercially packaged argan oil often states on the label which grade it is. If purchasing argan oil online, take time to read the description to be sure you know what you're buying.Continue to 11 of 13 below.
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Argan Oil - In the Moroccan Kitchen
Culinary grade argan oil is often appreciated in its most pure form as a dip for crusty Moroccan bread (khobz). It can also be drizzled as a condiment on couscous, vegetables, salads, eggs, and tagines. It has a low smoking point, so should be used to finish dishes as opposed to cooking them. An exception would be a tagine cooked at a very low temperature; one example is this tagine of lamb and olives with argan oil.Continue to 12 of 13 below.
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Argan Oil - a Key Ingredient in Amlou
Amlou is a delicious nutty Moroccan spread made from roasted almonds, argan oil and honey. It's traditionally served as a dip with bread and is also used as a condiment on couscous.
The stone mill shown in step 8 is the traditional method of grinding the roasted almonds to a paste for amlou, but a food processor will work fine in modern kitchens. (The photo tutorial How to Make Amlou shows the easy food processor method.)
Occasionally you will find that Berber families make amlou using walnuts or other nuts instead of (or in addition to) the almonds. Likewise, some families may use sugar in place of the honey.Continue to 13 of 13 below.
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Argan Oil - a Highly Valued Beauty Product
Just as food-grade argan oil is highly regarded in culinary circles, cosmetic grade argan oil is renowned in the beauty and homeopathic industries as a quality treatment to condition hair, nourish nails and lips and hydrate hands and body. It also has healing properties and therefore can be used on cuts, burns, rashes, eczema, and other skin conditions. As with culinary grade argan oil, a little bit of the cosmetic oil goes a long way.