What Is Coconut Oil?

Buying, Baking, Cooking, and Recipes

Coconut oil with herbs
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Coconut oil is extracted from coconut meat and milk. Coconut palm trees grow in tropical regions and the oil may be produced in those same areas. It's not uncommon, however, for producers in colder climates, including northern regions of the U.S., to make coconut oil as well. Coconut oil has been a favorite cooking oil in Southeast Asian cuisine for stir-fries and sweets. It is increasingly being used worldwide in baked goods and desserts as well as savory cooking applications such as frying, sautéing, and roasting, often as an alternative to butter.

Fast Facts

  • Varieties: Virgin (unrefined), refined
  • Nutrition: 130 calories, 14 grams fat per tablespoon
  • Storage: Room temperature
  • Melting Point: 76 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Smoke Point: 350 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit

Coconut Oil vs. Olive Oil

Coconut oil and olive oil are both popular cooking oils, sometimes labeled as healthier options. They have similar uses and nutritional content, including nearly identical calories (coconut oil 130 and olive oil 120 per tablespoon) and fat, though coconut oil does contain more saturated fat. Where 1 tablespoon of olive oil has 14 grams of fat, only 2 grams are saturated, and of coconut oil's 14 grams of fat, 13 are saturated.

Tastewise, olive oil gives dishes a slight olive flavor while some coconut oil can give foods a coconut flavor. The smoke point of the virgin varieties of both oils is low, so best for no- and low-heat cooking. The more refined versions of the two have milder flavors and higher smoke points that can withstand higher heats.

Varieties

There are two basic varieties of coconut oil. Virgin, or unrefined, coconut oil is cold-pressed, typically from fresh coconut meat and milk. It is thought of as pure because no solvents are added during extraction; the only ingredient should be coconut. You'll notice that it has a strong coconut flavor and scent. In the U.S., there is no legal distinction between virgin and extra virgin, so it does vary between brands.

Refined coconut oil is often dry-milled from baked coconut and the extraction process uses heat. It goes through more refining processes, including bleaching and deodorizing, and may include additives. It has a neutral aroma and milder taste that is barely reminiscent of coconut.

Beyond the kitchen, coconut oil is used for skin and hair products, including many homemade options. While you can use food-grade coconut oil for this purpose, there are cosmetic-grade versions, which should not be used for cooking. Coconut oils intended for cosmetics are less refined and may include perfumes and other additives.

Coconut Oil Uses

Coconut oil has a variety of uses in the kitchen, including smoothies, desserts, sauces, dressings, and marinades. You can use it to sauté vegetables, fry food, mix into granola, create a seafood dip, or spread (or drizzle) it on top of food. It can also stand in as the oil to make popcorn or as an alternative for butter when greasing the pan for things like scrambled eggs and pancakes.

Baking is a favorite use for coconut oil. It adds richness and flavor to baked goods while creating a lighter final product. In many recipes, it's used as a substitute for butter, shortening, and vegetable oils. Coconut oil is a good vegan alternative to butter as well.

How to Cook With Coconut Oil

White and solid at room temperature, coconut oil clarifies and liquefies when it reaches 76 degrees Fahrenheit. When cooking with it, consider the flavor it adds to the dish as well as which variety is best for the particular application. The smoke point of virgin coconut oil is 350 degrees Fahrenheit, so it's suited for baking and sautéing. It will burn above that temperature and make food taste burnt. Refined coconut oil has a smoke point of 400 degrees Fahrenheit, making it better for frying and other medium- and high-temperature cooking. It's not great for deep-frying.

Since it does transform from solid to liquid very easily, consider which form is best for your recipe. When using it as a butter substitute, use solid coconut oil in place of solid butter (cutting into a dough, for instance) and liquid coconut oil for melted butter. It's easy to liquefy coconut oil: Place the jar in a bowl of hot water for a few minutes.

What Does It Taste Like?

Virgin coconut oil tastes like real coconut, though the flavor intensity will vary from one brand to another. Refined coconut oil is far more neutral and you'll barely be able to taste the coconut.

Coconut Oil Substitute

Coconut oil is a little fattier than butter, but you can use a 1:1 ratio of coconut oil for butter. The same substitution applies to most other oils. Some baked good recipes may need just a dash of extra liquid to make up for butter's moisture. You can also find a balance by substituting only half of a recipe's butter or olive oil with coconut oil.

Coconut Oil Recipes

Coconut oil is common in Southeast Asian recipes, including stir-fries. It's also seeing more use in baked goods, from bread to cupcakes and scones, as well as snacks like granola and savory fried foods.

Where to Buy Coconut Oil

The rising popularity of coconut oil in general cooking has increased its availability. It's often found alongside other cooking oils in most supermarkets, grocery, and natural food stores. Buying it at a food store is best so you ensure it's suitable for food rather than cosmetic use. It can also be found online. Generally, it's sold in glass or plastic jars, ranging from 14 ounces to 30 ounces, though bulk quantities are available. You will also find liquid versions, but the solid oil is more common. Coconut oil cooking sprays are convenient for greasing baking pans. This oil is a little more expensive than some others and you will pay more for high-quality coconut oil.

For the highest quality coconut oil, choose unrefined, organic, and cold-pressed. Explore the virgin oil options available because there is a difference in taste and you might like one better. If you want to fry with it or desire an option with no coconut flavoring, look for a quality refined coconut oil. Read the label to ensure it doesn't have additives and expect to pay more.

Storage

Coconut oil can be stored in the pantry and will stay solid at room temperatures up to 76 degrees Fahrenheit. If a little liquid forms on top, there's no need to worry as it's perfectly natural. Coconut oil can liquefy and solidify multiple times with no harm. If your kitchen is warm, you can store it in the refrigerator to keep it solid. Generally, coconut oil has a shelf life of two years.

Nutrition and Benefits

The question of whether coconut oil is healthy is a matter of debate. As with most things, moderation in the diet is key. The biggest concern is the concentration of saturated fat; coconut oil is 100 percent fat and 90 percent of that is saturated fat. However, it is not high in the type of saturated fats that are particularly dangerous to health. As long as you're buying pure organic coconut oil, you're not getting the trans fats that come with hydrogenated products, like hydrogenated margarine.

The saturated fats found in coconut oil actually raise HDL cholesterol—the good kind. Lauric acid, one of the main saturated fats found in coconut oil, is linked to many good things in the body. The acid is an antimicrobial and antiviral agent that can help speed up metabolism. Virgin coconut oil is also the most nutrient-rich, with antioxidants and anti-inflammatory properties.