Like many other foods – eggs and butter to name but two, – coconut oil has had a rather chequered past. Once castigated for its high saturated fat content, coconut oil has in recent years, been given a second life as a healthy fat. And while drinking it by the tablespoon still isn’t a great idea, (back to my motto “everything in moderation”) you definitely should consider adding the oil to your diet.
When saturated fats were deemed as “bad for you” there was no defining any differences between them. That is to say that coconut oil and lard, for instance, were lumped in the same category! All types of saturated fats were considered to be bad for your health. More recent research has shown that that is just not true.
Coconut oil IS almost 90 percent saturated fat, but we now know that not all saturated fats are created equal. “The saturated fat in coconut oil is mostly lauric acid, a medium-chain saturated fatty acid that appears to have a more neutral effect on heart health when compared to longer-chain saturated fats found in meats and dairy products,” says Wendy Bazilian, R.D., author of The SuperFoodsRx Diet.
When you consider the parts of the world where coconut oil is the staple oil used, such as Sri Lanka, and compare their heart disease records to ours, you would wonder why we aren’t all switching immediately! Their rates of heart disease are significantly lower than in the US and coconut oil seems to be a significant factor in that. Some research even suggests that coconut oil can paradoxically improve cholesterol numbers by revving up enzymes in the body that breakdown fats. It seems that these medium-chained fats are metabolized more easily into energy in the liver, ultimately meaning that they are less likely to end up as stored fat on your thighs!
Unfortunately simply adding coconut oil to your diet is not enough to ensure weight control and heart health gains, you must actually use it as a replacement for other, less healthy items and incorporate it into an overall healthy diet. However, lauric acid does have antibacterial properties, and studies show that the tropical oil (particularly the virgin varieties) contains a bounty of antioxidants that may help knock out those pesky cell-damaging free radicals that are thought to accelerate aging and disease, including cancer and HIV. It is also a great skin moisturizer and hair conditioning treatment and, due to its antibacterial properties, can be used directly on skin to help heal wounds, abrasions, dry skin issues, etc.
You can purchase coconut oil pretty much everywhere now, usually in a tub of solidified oil – it looks white when solid, but melts at 76 degrees and becomes a clear liquid. It does not require refrigeration and do not worry if it does melt, if you need to solidify it again (for substituting for butter for example), just place in the fridge for a while. Turning liquid does not mean it has gone rancid. For most cooking, however, you will be melting it anyway. Both cold-pressed and expeller-pressed versions have a long shelf life (about 2 years without refrigeration), meaning there is less worry about coconut oil going rancid than there is about more delicate oils such as flax or extra-virgin olive oil.
Unlike many other cooking oils, coconut oil is very stable and can withstand high cooking temperatures. It has a high smoking point of 350°F; higher than olive oil, which makes it perfectly suitable for sautéing, baking, roasting, and even frying.
Coconut oil that is labelled “virgin” or “extra virgin” is extracted from coconut meat using delicate methods such as cold-pressing. This type of oil will have more antioxidants as well as a stronger coconut flavor and aroma; something to bear in mind when making your choice. My mother loves coconut in anything so she sautées all her vegetables in it as well as using it in cakes and crumbles. I prefer to pick and choose. If you don’t want the coconut flavor to be detected then try a refined coconut oil (some of these are already liquid), sometimes labeled “expeller-pressed”. As always, do your homework and find out which brands do not use harsh chemicals to do the refining. Refined oils also have an even higher smoke point, around 450F, so great for stir frys, etc. Personally I would choose a virgin oil for a curry to get that hint of coconut, but in a cake I would probable choose the refined.
To sauté and stir-fry with coconut oil, simply use it in place of the oil called for in your recipes and you’ll be able to kick up the heat a bit higher than if you were using olive oil. Even more so with the refined than with the virgin.
You can also use coconut oil to replace butter or shortening in baking recipes. When substituting coconut oil for butter, use 25% less oil than the butter amount called for, as its density is higher. To compensate for the bit of moisture that butter normally gives off when it bakes, you may need to add just a dash of additional liquid (water is fine) to balance out the moisture content overall.
Experiment a little, live a lot!