Healing Kitchen

Just the Flax, Ma'am
If you know anything about flax, it's probably the fact that the fibrous stalk of the plant is the basic material from which linen fabric is made. However, this plant is also the source of flaxseeds--tiny, glossy brown seeds that pack a potently healthful punch.

Flaxseeds contain a high proportion of oil, which can be pressed to produce flaxseed oil for cooking (if the oil is then boiled, it's called linseed oil, and is used in making paint and varnish). The fat in flaxseed oil is about 70% polyunsaturated, and includes alpha-linolenic acid (an omega-3 fatty acid), which has been shown to help reduce the risk of heart disease and also fights cancer.

Flaxseeds are the best source of a type of phytoestrogens called lignans, which are potential cancer fighters. And flaxseeds contain both soluble and insoluble fiber. More to the point here, though, they have a light, nutty flavor that's an asset to quickbreads and other simple baked goods; ground flaxseed also makes a tasty topping for cereal or yogurt. Thanks to its high oil content, flaxseed allows you to reduce the amount of butter, oil or shortening you use in baking recipes. Flaxseed oil offers maximum health benefits when eaten in its uncooked state (heat breaks down the fatty acids, destroying their nutritive value).

How to Cook With It
Your body can't derive the full benefit of flaxseeds if you consume them whole, so ground (milled) flaxseed is the way to go. You can buy prepared flaxseed flour or meal, but because of its high fat content, the ground seeds can go rancid quickly. You're better off grinding your own, using a coffee grinder or mini food processor. Use the flax meal in baked goods, such as our Sunshine Bread or Toasted Oatmeal Cookies with Cranberries & Raisins, but don't replace more than about one-fifth of the flour in any given recipe with flax meal or flour, or the texture and flavor will suffer. You can also stir coarsely ground flaxseed into cooked cereals, or sprinkle it into yogurt, for a pleasantly nutty, crunchy touch.

Since flaxseed oil is at its most healthful when not cooked, this light oil, with its mild nutlike flavor, is an ideal ingredient for salad dressings (try our Avocado Arugula Salad with Basil-Mustard Vinaigrette) and other recipes in which the oil is not heated. In our Walnut Pesto, which gets stirred into Red Pepper-Carrot Soup, flaxseed oil replaces olive oil for a healthy variation on a classic basil pesto.

How to Store It
As we've said, it's best to buy whole flaxseeds and grind them yourself. If you do buy the pre-ground meal, store it in the freezer. Sniff the meal before using it--rancid flax smells like oil-based paint.

If you buy the whole seeds in bulk from a health-food store, sniff them, too, to make sure they're fresh. Transfer them to an airtight container and store in the refrigerator. The whole seeds should keep well up to 1 year. Grind only as much as you need at one time; if you have leftover ground flaxseeds, freeze in a sealed container for up to 6 months.

Buy flaxseed oil that comes in an opaque bottle, and keep it in the refrigerator. If the oil develops a strong, acrid smell, it's become rancid; discard it.

Date Posted: 02/21/2000

Author: the Healing Kitchen Staff
Date Published: 02/20/2000
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