Safflower oil is an oil expressed from the seeds of the safflower plant, a member of the sunflower family. This oil began to grow in popularity in the 1960s, and it is widely available in many markets and health food stores. In addition to being used in food production, it also appears as a medium for painting and as a component in a wide variety of commercial products.
Like their sunflower relatives, safflowers are annual plants with deep roots that have evolved to sustain the plant in dry climates. Safflowers can be grown in a wide range of climates, although they are vulnerable to frost damage, so they do not thrive in extremely cold regions of the world. The flower heads resemble thistles, developing yellow to orange petals that eventually fall away to reveal the seeds.
There are two distinct types of safflower oil, each with very different uses. Monounsaturated oil, which is high in oleic acid, is used as a heat-stable cooking oil. Polyunsaturated oil, which is high in linoleic acid, is used as a cold oil. Like other products high in oleic acid, this monounsaturated oil is not terribly beneficial to human health. Polyunsaturated oil, on the other hand, has a great deal of nutritional value, making it an excellent choice for dressings and other applications in which a cold carrier oil can be useful.
Monounsaturated safflower oil is very shelf-stable, although it should still be stored in a cool dry place out of the light to prevent it from going rancid. It is odorless and colorless, with a very high smoking point, which means that it can be used for deep frying and other high-heat cooking methods. Polyunsaturated oil, which is also colorless and tasteless, needs to be handled much more carefully, because it goes rancid very easily. It should not be subjected to heat, and some people even recommend storing it in the refrigerator.
Typically, the labeling on a bottle of safflower oil will indicate which type of oil is inside. If a shopper isn't sure, he or she should check the nutritional labeling on the side, or look at the storage and use recommendations. If the label says that the oil needs to be stored in a cool or refrigerated location, for example, it is probably polyunsaturated, whereas oils touted for their durability in cooking are most likely monounsaturated. Polyunsaturated oil should not be used in high-heat cooking, because it will become rancid, developing chemical compounds that will add an unpleasant taste to the food.