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WHAT IS COCONUT OIL?
Coconuts are now processed into many different products and ingredients for us to use in the kitchen, one of the more popular ones being Coconut Oil. Extracted from only the mature coconuts, coconut oil is similar to olive oil in that it has its own distinct flavor and can be processed in a variety of ways to produce different qualities of the same oil.
Though it has only become popular in modern Western culture in the last 10 years, it is a traditional cooking oil in the continents of Africa, Asia and South America. Compared to other common oils used in modern American cooking, coconut oil has some unique properties that make it not only a healthier choice of oil but a versatile ingredient to have in a modern kitchen. So to give you a helping hand and make sure you have all the knowledge you need in order to buy the right coconut oil for you, we have put together the ultimate guide to coconut oil.
HOW IS COCONUT OIL MADE?
There are a variety of methods that are used to extract the oil from the coconuts. Ultimately, it is the manufacturing process and the quality of the coconuts used that determine the quality and the price of the coconut oil you choose to buy.
Manufacturers may extract the oil using harsh chemicals and high heat, and so will be able to produce a high quantity of poor quality oil and can sell it at a cheaper price. While others choose to use organic coconuts and the method of gently steaming the coconuts to release the oil is much more labor-intensive and produces a limited supply of more "pure" oil. Because there are a variety of ways to extract the oil, it means there are different types of coconut oil you can buy.
WHAT ARE THE DIFFERENT TYPES OF COCONUT OIL?
Due to the different methods of extraction, there are a few different types of coconut oil that you may find at your local health food store or supermarket. However, if you eliminate all the buzzwords and marketing jargon, there are really only 2 types of coconut oil; unrefined and refined.
Unrefined Coconut Oil
May also be described as "virgin coconut oil", "pure coconut oil", "raw coconut oil" or even "cold-pressed coconut oil". This type of coconut oil is extracted using minimal processing, no chemicals and no heat. Often the coconut meat is simply pressed which releases the liquid and, because oil doesn't mix with water, the coconut oil naturally separates itself. This extraction method is intensive and the oil is more pure as it hasn't been altered by the use of heat or chemicals. Therefore, it is often the most expensive type of coconut oil you can buy.
However, buying this type of oil ensures that you are consuming something that has not come into contact with harsh chemicals and is likely to have maintained its healthy properties. Due to the gentle nature of the extraction process, the unrefined coconut oil also maintains a subtle coconut scent and flavor. This makes unrefined coconut oil perfect in salad dressings, raw vegan desserts or even homemade beauty products.
Refined Coconut Oil
Refined coconut oil is an ideal cooking ingredient because it is that little bit more stable than unrefined coconut oil. However, within this category of coconut oil there are varying qualities of oil due to the different methods of extraction and processing used. The labels on the coconut oil you buy should tell you how the oil has been processed using words such as "deodorized", "naturally steamed" or "hydrogenated" as a few examples.
The most natural or gentle method of processing is to gently steam the coconut meat which naturally promotes the oil to separate itself from the other components of the coconut. However, other methods include using "degumming" or "neutralizing" chemicals to effectively separate the oil from the other properties of the coconut. It's similar to using soap to wash away any unwanted particles so that oil is "clean". Whatever process is used, the refining of coconut oil does make it more stable, giving it a higher smoke point (350℉) making it a suitable oil for frying, sauteing and roasting.
Refined coconut oil is also often labelled as "deodorized" or "unscented" which means the refining process has also included the removal of the coconut smell and taste in the oil. This makes this oil much more versatile than the unrefined coconut oil because it can be used in any dish you like and you don't have to be worried of it having a subtle coconut flavor; something you don't necessarily want when cooking traditional European or American dishes.
ARE ALL COCONUT OILS ORGANIC?
You can find organic and non-organic versions of both refined and unrefined coconut oils. Do check the labels to make sure you know what you are buying. Organic will ultimately be more expensive but the cheaper non-organic oils will have been exposed to pesticides during the farming of the coconuts. You may also want to check whether the coconut oil you are buying is FairTrade and Non-GMO if those qualities are important to you.
HOW TO USE COCONUT OIL?
As previously mentioned, refined coconut oil has a high smoking point which means, when heated, coconut oil won't start to smoke or start to burn until it reaches 350℉. Though there are other oils that have a much higher smoke point than coconut oil, they don't necessarily have the same health properties. Therefore, coconut oil is an ideal oil for any light cooking (we don't recommend using it for wok cooking or deep frying).
The main unique quality of coconut oil is its ability to change from a solid to liquid and back to solid without losing it's integrity and becoming useless. If you think about melted butter, once melted it loses its structure and you won't be able to get back into a solid block. With coconut oil you can.
Coconut is naturally solid in cooler temperatures but will be naturally liquid above 78℉. This makes it a great alternative for both solid fats, such as dairy butter or margarine, and liquid oils such as vegetable, canola and palm oil.
Though it can remain solid at a cool room temperature, we recommend keeping your coconut oil in the fridge so you can be in control of it's solid or liquid state. If you need the coconut oil to be semi-solid or soft, treat it similar to butter and leave it at room temperature to soften before using. If you require liquid coconut oil, add your desired amount to a pan and gently melt it over a low heat on the stove.
When thinking about whether you want to use refined or unrefined coconut oil when cooking, the main thing to consider is whether you want a subtle coconut flavor added to whatever you are making. If coconut is not a flavor you need or want, then use a good quality refined deodorized coconut oil instead of a virgin unrefined coconut oil. Here are some other suggestions on the best ways to use refined or unrefined coconut oil in the kitchen.
Frying, Sauteing, Roasting - as mentioned before, refined coconut oil is the best for these cooking methods. We find it a great oil to use to season frying pans for pancakes or crepes and also a great replacement for butter or oil when sauteing or roasting vegetables.
Baking - in a semi-solid state, coconut oil can be used as a substitute for butter or margarine in cakes, cookies and pastry. However, you will need to work quickly so the coconut oil doesn't melt too much. Cookie batter and pastry should be left to rest in the fridge before baking. Melted coconut oil can also be used as an alternative for canola or vegetable oil in cake batters, muffins or traybakes.
Tip: when using melted coconut oil, be careful not to mix it into other ingredients that are too cold, such as milk that has just come from the fridge, otherwise it will resolidify.
Raw Vegan - coconut oil is a great setting agent for raw desserts such as raw vegan cheesecakes, raw vegan pastry or even raw vegan cheeses. It can be added to mixes in a liquid state and then helps the mix set when transferred to the fridge or freezer. It is best to use unrefined virgin coconut oil for raw vegan cooking as the refined coconut oil isn't considered to be a "raw" ingredient.
Salad dressings & Sauces - coconut oil can be used as alternative oil to olive oil, avocado oil or other flavorsome oils commonly used in salad dressings. Coconut oil could work well in dressings for Asian-style salads or even Poké bowls. If you are wanting a thick creamy dressing or dipping sauce, coconut oil will help the dressing to set in the fridge and give it a thicker texture.
Best uses for unrefined coconut oil: homemade beauty products, raw vegan cooking, baking, and dressings & sauces when you are wanting a subtle coconut flavor.
Best uses for refined coconut oil: high smoke point for frying and sauteing when you do not want coconut flavor.
HEALTH BENEFITS AND RISKS OF COCONUT OIL
Coconut oil is regarded as a "superfood" in Western culture due to it being a healthier fat alternative compared to the more common oils and fats in the Western diet.
Comprising of mostly natural saturated fats means that coconut oil can help to increase your levels of good cholesterol while also reducing bad cholesterol levels. Having healthy levels of good cholesterol in turn leads to good heart health and overall well-being.
Coconut oil is also one of the few natural sources of medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) which, when consumed regularly, helps the body lose unnecessary weight by encouraging the body to burn fat rather than store it. Research has also shown that MCT can reduce hunger and keep you satisfied for longer, as well as contribute to improved brain function.
Finally, coconut oil contains lauric acid which has been shown to kill harmful bacteria and viruses. Though it is thought that consuming coconut oil doesn't help with your immunity against flu or infections, it may have antimicrobial properties that make it a good natural alternative for mouthwash and skin moisturizer. It has also been shown to have light UV ray protection and can help with eczema.
Though this all may sound great and you will be wanting to swap all your oils for coconut oil, you do need to also consider the potential risks of adding coconut oil to your diet.
The main issue is that coconut oil is 90% saturated fat, higher than butter and margarine, which also means that it is very high in calories; 117 calories per tablespoon to be exact. With all of the nutritional properties and versatility coconut oil has as an ingredient, it is a great oil to add to your diet; you just need to be aware of the calorie density before you start adding it to every meal.
Also, with coconut oil becoming more and more popular in recent years, techniques of processing and manufacturing are becoming more efficient in using more chemicals and processing methods in order to reduce the cost. This means you can find and buy coconut oil that is a fraction of the cost of others but you need to recognize that it will be really poor quality. Highly-processed coconut oil is not worth buying for its health properties as this is cancelled out by the potentially harmful chemicals used to produce it.
We believe that coconut oil is a great addition to a clean healthy diet and is a great ingredient to play around within the kitchen. It is important to remember that the healthy qualities of coconut oil will only come into effect if eaten alongside a balanced healthy diet. The same as every other "superfood" ingredient; it doesn't work if you add it to a poor diet mainly comprised of highly processed junk food.
THE 5 BEST COCONUT OILS
As discussed above, there is such a wide range of coconut oils now on the market. Here is our favorite collection of branded coconut oils that are perfect for a variety of cooking methods.
Unrefined Coconut Oils
Refined Coconut Oils
The information provided in this article is not nutritional or medical advice. Please read our disclaimer.