Coconut Oil: Healthy and Easy to Use

by Elizabeth Skipper | October 8th, 2014 | Ask the Chef

1493I have seen coconut oil in more recipes lately, touting its health benefits.  As you’re a chef, my question is directed at cooking. Are there culinary advantages to using coconut oil in recipes? 

Welcome to the world of cooking with coconut oil. I, too, became aware of its health benefits a few years ago and have been happily incorporating it into my cooking ever since. While I wouldn’t say there are culinary advantages to cooking with it – it requires a little adaptation – it’s certainly easy to work into your recipes.

Think of it as a stand-in for virtually any neutral oil like canola, soy, corn, or the ubiquitous “vegetable” oil, none of which you’ll find in my kitchen. There are two major differences between those oils and coconut oil, one of which is easy to work around; the other requires a little more doing. They are the flavor and the fact that coconut oil solidifies at about 76°F.

Good quality, less refined coconut oil tastes like coconut. I remember the look on my daughter’s face when I served her eggs fried in it. It was a surprised, not very happy, what the heck is this? face. And true enough, eggs that taste as though they’ve been basted in suntan lotion are probably not for the majority of us. The way around it, I found, is to find a source of good quality deodorized coconut oil, which is virtually tasteless. Then you can blend it with butter or bacon fat to get the flavor you want in a particular dish (think either of those for cooked eggs, for example, or breaded cutlets.) If no flavor is needed, just use it plain.

Some dishes are good with the taste of coconut oil, so use a less refined version in those. I make a vegetable soup with poultry meatballs in which the coconut flavor is delicious, surprising as that may seem. I also make a fabulous appetizer of shrimp or chicken tenders with a triple hit of coconut – they’re rolled in an egg/coconut milk wash, coated in bread crumbs and shredded coconut, and fried in coconut oil. Then there’s a Thai pumpkin-coconut soup… yum. So it all depends on what you’re making. It does mean keeping two kinds of coconut oil on hand, but I’ve made room on my kitchen counter with no qualms.

The solid state issue will occur on the counter as soon as the temperature in the kitchen goes below that 76°F (25°C) mark (there’s no need to refrigerate coconut oil; it’s shelf stable.) Here in NH, that’s most of the time. No worries; if you’re sautéing or frying with it, it will melt in the pan. If you want to use it for something like mayonnaise or vinaigrette, that’s another matter.

Dr. Mary Enig, co-author of Eat Fat, Lose Fat, created a blend of healthful oils – equal parts melted coconut, sesame oil (not the toasted one!) and extra virgin olive oil – which can be used in salad dressings or as a cooking oil. To quote from the book, “When used for cooking, flavors come through beautifully, and the blend does not burn as easily as pure coconut oil. In salads, it provides all the benefits of coconut oil and does not have the strong taste of olive oil. In mayonnaise, it provides firmness when chilled. Be sure that the sesame oil you purchase is truly expeller expressed or cold pressed, since the very high temperatures used during processing destroy the unique protective antioxidants in sesame oil.”

If you want to use coconut oil for roasting vegetables, just put some in the pan as it’s preheating in the oven, then roll the veggies in it and season them. For basting, put meats or poultry in the oven first and as soon as their surface begins to heat up, brush with the coconut oil. It’ll melt right away. The smoke point for coconut oil is about 350°F, depending on how highly it’s been refined, so it’s not good for deep frying.

For baking things like quick breads or muffins, substitute coconut oil in a 1:1 ratio for the oil called for in the recipe. For shortening, use ¾ the amount of coconut oil for 1 part shortening. Bear in mind that if the rest of your ingredients like milk or eggs are refrigerator temperature, they will tend to solidify the coconut oil when it’s mixed in, so bring them to room temperature first.

And last but not least, when the cooking’s done and the dishes are all washed up at the end of the day, grab a little coconut oil and rub it onto your face and hands. It absorbs quickly, and is a lovely moisturizer for anyone, but especially someone whose complexion may naturally be a little oily. You’ll love the way it feels.

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