When confronted with olive oil, peanut oil, avocado oil, vegetable oil, lard, and others, it can be hard to know where to turn. At such times, we must quote Moana’s dad and “consider the coconut.” Coconut oil is a popular, somewhat health conscious choice, but what is coconut oil?
First, a quick refresher on coconuts: They are considered “a superfood,” an increasingly meaningless term that basically just means a food that has nutrients and abundant uses. This is certainly true of coconuts, which are chock full of vitamins and minerals–including cytokinins, which studies have linked to anti-aging and anti-carcinogenic effects–and can be used for all sorts of things. Coconut meat is a common ingredient in many recipes (and great eaten on its own), coconut water is a nutrient-dense and extremely hydrating beverage that has become a full blown craze, coconut milk can be used in cooking or as a milk substitute, and, of course, The Professor on Gilligan’s Island used coconut shells to make things like radios and batteries. (Side note: Did you know the word “coconut” comes from the old Portuguese word “coco” meaning head, due to the fact that the indentations in the coconut make it look like a face?) Not least of the coconut’s impressive byproducts is coconut oil, which is the oil you get by pressing fresh or dried coconut meat. Even though it’s called coconut oil, you’re likely to use it as a solid because coconut oil remains solid up to around 77 degrees Fahrenheit.
Coconut Oil Uses
Because of its high levels of moisturizing fatty acids, coconut oil is used in a lot of cosmetic products—it’s a popular ingredient in lotions, face cleansers, and shampoos. It has also been suggested to have a cavalcade of medicinal properties, including preventing liver disease and reducing asthma, but such claims are still being studied so they shouldn’t be taken as hard facts. In short: Don’t start guzzling coconut oil instead of going to see a doctor.
Now let’s delve into how to use coconut oil for cooking. The same high content of lipids that makes it prized in cosmetics means that it contains a lot of fat. There is about 90% saturated fat in coconut oil vs olive oil, which contains about 10%. However, this is somewhat misleading, as the saturated fat in coconut oil is made up of a kind of fatty acid that is easy to process and helps raise good cholesterol levels in the body. Thus, despite its whopping fat count, there are clear health benefits. Coconut oil can also be heated to a higher temperature than olive oil without affecting its flavor, which makes it a good choice for pan-frying. As a solid, it’s also a great substitute for butter in vegan baking recipes.
Refined vs Unrefined Coconut Oil
Refined coconut oil typically comes from dried coconut meat or “copra,” while unrefined is usually made from the fresh coconut. Unrefined coconut oil has a more coconutty flavor and a lower smoke point. Refined coconut oil, by contrast, is milder in taste and has a higher smoke point, but it is more processed, which may be a concern to some. Generally speaking, refined coconut oil is a little more versatile, but if you enjoy a strong taste of coconut, definitely consider giving unrefined coconut oil a shot.
Then, after you’ve made a delicious and health-conscious recipe, why not reward yourself with a nice mixed drink served out of a coconut? Or maybe just do as The Professor would and make yourself a coconut transistor radio.
Thoughts? Questions? Complete disagreement? Leave a comment!