Wednesday, May 13

Mineral Oil's Mysteries

Mineral oil is one of those kitchen oddities: as far back as I can remember my mother has admonished me to "feed" my wooden cutting boards and utensils with the stuff. I'm not sure if it's feeding anything, but it is good at preserving, and just as importantly, sure makes them look good.

So, what is mineral oil anyway? Is it food? Is it natural? I wondered why it was called mineral oil; are there any minerals in it? And why people eat it, rub it on metal to prevent rust as well as all over their babies (baby oil is just scented mineral oil) to prevent diaper rash?

Firstly, It Comes from the Ground, But It's Not Natural
Mineral oil, contrary to it's nutritional-sounding name, is a by-product of petroleum distillation. And there are no minerals in it. The term mineral has been attached to this colorless, flavorless and non-reactive lube because of it's origins. Crude oil is found among subterranean rocks--you know--like minerals.

Mineral oil is definitely not food, but because it's non-reactive and indigestible, but it's also not inedible. Think of mineral oil as a hitchhiker that's just passing through the honky tonk town that is your body. It'll go to the saloon, end up in jail, but only stay there until morning. Or you can think of it as vaseline, but runny. They're actually very close from a chemical perspective, as is paraffin, which may be starring in a candle near you.

Fire Eaters, Sufferers of The Grip, and Sugar-Crazed Children
Mineral oil can't be absorbed by the body, so if your guts are bound up from drinking creek water or taking too much Vicadin, sucking down a tablespoon or two can help get things moving. And I mean that in the most literal of senses...think about an orange inside a nylon sock. Now think about an orange in a nylon sock but covered with mineral oil. See? That's what happens, roughly.

If you don't like the idea of ingesting a petroleum distillate, and I don't either mind you, you should also stop eating that nice shiny candy you just bought. Some soft gummy candies are made with mineral oil as an ingredient, and some are just coated with it to create a nice sheen. Bleh.

Fire eaters use mineral oil on their crazy batons because it burns at a low temperature, but simultaneously has a very high flashpoint, meaning it won't light unexpectedly by simply coming into contact with a flame like gas or kerosene would. And it's not poisonous, of course, so it's perfectly safe for fire eating. Whew!

What About Wood?
Yes, you should use mineral oil on wooden utensils. For one thing, it repels water, so it can help to seal out moisture and the bacteria that would enjoy bathing in it. By making your wooden stuff a bit more water repellent, they may also last a bit longer, too.

Finally, it brings out the natural grain in wood, which in turn makes you feel like you're more at one with nature as you microwave your teriyaki bowl and adjust your hearing aid so you can listen to Fred on YouTube more clearly. So yes, mineral oil deserves a place under the sink, just remember to take it out and apply to your wooden boards and utensils every few months.