Last Updated: 2021-08-17
Today’s post is about argan oil, one of Morocco’s more recent exports to the world. The first time I saw it advertised on television I was a bit surprised, since I had only really seen it in Morocco.
This article will answer all your questions about argan oil, starting with where it comes from and building up from there.
Let’s get started!
The Argan Tree
The argan tree (argania espinosa) is known locally as the thorny olive tree. Its technical description is a little too advanced for me (I classify trees using adjectives like big, small, fat and skinny), so here’s a picture so you know what it looks like.
The tree grows in a very dry climate. Its greenish-yellow fruit is hard and oval-shaped. The pulp of the fruit is bitter and unpleasant to eat.
Inside the pit of each fruit there are two or three almond-like seeds. It takes about 900 pounds of these seeds to yield just 1 gallon of the precious oil, or 100 kilos for about a liter.
The oil can be produced in the traditional way or industrially, which we’ll talk about shortly. We’ll also debunk a common urban legend about argan oil production.
Industrial Argan Oil Extraction
There are basically three steps to the process: (1) removing the dried pulp, (2) breaking the pit to obtain the seeds inside it, and (3) grinding the seeds to extract the oil from them. The industrial process uses specialized machines and often trained operators for each of these three phases.
First, a machine makes small cuts on the skin of the fruit and the pulp is removed either by machine or by hand if the machine fails to do so.
Next, a machine cracks the pits and extracts the seeds.
Finally, the seeds are roasted and then ground to extract the oil.
Traditional Oil Production
Traditionally, the first phase of removing the outer pulp from the pit is done in two different ways. The dry fruit falls from the tree and it’s pulp is easily separated from the pit. Otherwise, the whole process can be done manually regardless of whether the pulp is dry or not.
The pits are cracked with a stone to obtain the seeds within. The seeds are then fire roasted. The seeds are ground to a paste in a hand mill, after which water is added and the paste is kneaded until the oil is extracted.
As you can imagine, it’s a tedious process and it can take up to six hours to extract just one liter. Normally women are the ones who carry out this process, whether at home for personal use or in professional work groups called cooperatives.
An Urban Legend about Argan Oil
Moroccans are great storytellers and they’ve been known to delight tourists with all sorts of tales, some mostly true, some less so.
The legend that I’m going to tell, does have a kernel of truth: goats are obviously actually able to climb trees as you can see in the following picture:
Ask the average Moroccan how argan oil is made and he’ll tell you that the goats climb up onto the tree and eat the fruits. People then come along and collect the pits from the feces and turn them into the oil. As proof, they say that this is why argan oil smells bad sometimes. Let’s debunk this urban legend.
First of all, goats don’t have to go through the painful process of defecating food they can’t digest for one simple reason: they’re ruminants. They eat the fruit with its pulp, chew their cud during the night and later spit out what they can’t digest, such as the pit.
Regarding the smell: the argan seed gives off a rather disagreeable smell, and that is why it is roasted. But homemade oil only intended for skin treatments may not be roasted. Some oils, homemade and otherwise, are cold-pressed as well. All of these are available for purchase and may have a certain musky scent that many find unpleasant. In the industrial process, however, in addition to being roasted, the seeds are normally deodorized as well.
What we saw in the picture earlier is somewhat disingenuous. The argan tree traditionally grows in very dry areas with very little vegetation. So, it’s possible for goats to get so hungry that they climb an argan tree to eat its bitter fruit, but only when they’re really desperate.
In short: a goat might climb an argan tree, and eat its fruit and subsequently spit out the seeds (not defecate them) which someone might use to make oil for home use. But what is definitely not true is that an entire industry in Morocco depends on the appetite and climbing skills of goats.
Along the road from Marrakech to Essaouira, where most of the argan oil cooperatives are, there are a few enterprising locals who make a living off this urban legend. For a small fee, you can stop and take pictures of goats posing in an argan tree.
But, if you pay close attention, the goats aren’t eating any of the bitter fruits. They’re just standing there, patiently waiting for their owner to let them come back down out of the tree.
What is Argan Oil Good for?
Argan oil is widely used in Morocco as a cosmetic on the skin and hair, and as a food product as well. In fact, the fruit is a fundamental part of Berber culture, and is used even sometimes for forage and firewood.
The following are its uses and properties:
Cosmetics (oil or soap): it’s famous because it’s been proven to moisturize, protect and regenerate the skin and has anti-wrinkle properties. It really is very good for the skin, even for burns, eczema, psoriasis, etc.
It works great on hair too, moisturizing and making it shiny and soft. Apply it to fingernails along with a few drops of lemon juice to revitalize them and make them shine.
As a food product: It reduces cholesterol and prevents heart ailments. It can be poured on ground almonds and eaten with bread, and tastes a little like nougat.
Where to Buy Argan Oil
You can buy argan oil at nearly every souvenir shop or pharmacy in Morocco, but these are not the best options in terms of quality and price.
The best option in my opinion is to buy your oil directly from one of the cooperatives near Agadir or Essaouira where the oil is produced. This way, you know you’re getting a quality product and that the money you spend is going right to the people making the product, not to a middleman.
The recommended price is about 60 dirhams for a bar of soap and 100-150 dirhams for a small bottle. I prefer the bottle. Although it’s more expensive, it’s easier to use. You can pour a little oil into the other products you use like shampoo, gel, moisturizer, etc. This way you can spread out the argan oil over a longer period of time.
One final piece of advice: ask to make sure the seeds were roasted before the oil was extracted. As mentioned, unroasted argan oil seeds have a very unpleasant smell that is eliminated by the roasting process. Unfortunately, cold-press oil has a persistent stench and is often available for purchase. I don’t recommend buying this kind.
So, make sure to either (1) ask specifically whether the seeds were roasted or otherwise (2) ask if you can take the oil that you plan to buy outside the shop to an open space where you can check its scent without being influenced by the other smells in the store.
In the end, if you end up buying stinky argan oil there is still an option. You can mix it in with other products, as mentioned earlier, to reduce the intensity of the odor.
Hope you enjoyed the article and learned a lot about argan oil. See you in the next post. Much love to all!