So…What Is It, Exactly?
Coconut oil is solid at room temperature and liquid when heated, and is made from the inner white flesh of coconuts. They’re harvested when their outer husks are still green. They’re cracked open, then allowed to mature, or “cure.” The husks are then discarded or sold to be used as fuel. The oil is then processed through either an expeller-press, cold-press, or centrifuge method. Then filtered to remove any impurities before putting into jars. If you’re unsure of what type to purchase, a good rule of thumb is to seek out the word “virgin,” which means that it was extracted from the first of multiple presses (and is high-quality).
Coconut Oil vs. Coconut Butter (Manna)
You’ll often see jars side-by-side of coconut oil and coconut butter, or manna. Although they look similar, they’re two different products: Coconut oil contains just the oil—it’s extracted from the flesh, which is then discarded. Coconut butter, in contrast, is made by processing the entirety of the white meat of the coconut. You may notice that the oil in coconut butter has separated and risen to the top of the jar, as in natural nut butters. Coconut butter can be used as a substitute for butter, jam, or any spread eaten straight out of the jar, while coconut oil is best used for cooking.
How to Cook With It
Coconut oil is ideal for searing, sautéing, and, depending on the grade, even frying. When baking, it’s a better substitute for butter than liquid-at-room-temperature oils, like olive oil or canola oil. Although it can be substuted it but nothing performs exactly like butter. If you’re interested in baking with coconut oil, we recommend using only tested recipes that identify it as an ingredient, as in this chocolate pound cake. Because butter has a greater water content than coconut oil as well as a different melting point, the two cannot be used interchangeably.
Coconut oil is high in saturated fats (around 90%) compared to olive oil (around 10%). The saturated fat in coconut oil is made up of medium-chain fatty acids, which can raise good cholesterol (HDL) levels and are easily processed in the body—which explains why, despite the high saturated fat content, it’s still considered a nutritional darling.
Labels Matter—Choose the Right One
Virgin vs. Extra-Virgin
These terms, used in olive oil labeling, aren’t entirely relevant to coconut oil. Olive oils labeled as extra virgin must be sourced from the first pressing of olives, and are thicker, more viscous, and less acidic than other grades of olive oils. In contrast, when it comes to coconut oil, there are no such regulations for the word “extra virgin” (yet) so be wary of packaging—many extra virgin coconut oils are identical to “regular” or “virgin” coconut oil; both can be jarred after the first pressing.
Expeller-Pressed vs. Cold-Pressed
An expeller is the machine that processes the coconut flesh and extracts the oil. So, explains Stansbury, “expeller-pressed” just refers to the most basic level of the process. You’ll sometimes see coconut oil labeled as “cold-pressed,” which refers to the highest temperature the oil reaches as it drips from the machine. To be classified as cold-pressed, oil must not exceed 140˚F (although some purists believe it shouldn’t exceed 120˚). Many health-conscious consumers prefer cold-pressed, because they consider the oil to be purer and less processed—although it is not technically “raw.”
Raw coconut oil must not have been heated above 96˚F, which requires a special cold press or centrifuge. This oil is favored by raw foodists, who steer clear of food heated above 115˚.
Refined vs. Unrefined (White vs. Whole-Kernel)
Refined coconut oil has a milder flavor than unrefined oil. It also has as a slightly higher smoke point (400˚F)—meaning it’s ideal for using in place of other neutral oils that can stand up to high-heat cooking processes. In contrast, unrefined coconut oil (which, to make things confusing, is sometimes labeled as either “virgin” or “extra virgin”) can have a very nutty or tropical taste. The smoke point of unrefined coconut oil is 350˚F.
Some producers skip these labels in favor of the terms “white” vs. “whole kernel” coconut oil. A thin pale brown layer between the flesh of the coconut and its husk is either discarded (in white oils) or processed with the meat (as in whole kernel). The difference is in the flavor and aromatics: Whole-kernel and unrefined oils have a nuttier flavor and are more fragrant.
How to Store It
As with all other oils, you’ll want to store coconut oil in a cool, dark place. Avoid placing them next to the stove or oven, where the temperature fluctuations can cause it to melt and re-solidify, ultimately causing it to degrade faster. You can also store your coconut oil in the refrigerator.
Bon Appetite, March 4th 2015, Rochelle Bilow