The Simply Recipes Guide to Coconut Oil

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Curious about coconut oil? We've got the scoop! From the different types of coconut oil available to how to swap coconut oil for butter in baking (great for vegan desserts!), consider this your guide to using coconut oil in your cooking.

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Photography Credit: Alison Bickel

I use coconut oil a lot. I like that it’s less refined than many other cooking oils, and I like how it tastes.

But I don’t always understand coconut oil. Why are there so many kinds? Are some healthier than others? Why is it solid one day and liquid the next? How do I measure it when it’s solid? What’s the best way to melt it?

Here’s everything you need to know about coconut oil!

WHAT IS COCONUT OIL? IS IT HEALTHY?

Coconut oil is extracted from the flesh of coconuts. It’s a saturated fat, and it’s solid at room temperature.

A few decades ago, saturated fats were considered evil incarnate and all kinds of bad for you. Now, health experts celebrate coconut oil and say it’s good for you! What gives?

In short, not all saturated fats are created equal. Coconut oil has mostly medium-chain fatty acids, which the body metabolizes and converts to energy more easily than other types of fat. Because of this, some studies (and millions of fans) now cast coconut oil as heart-healthy.

Measuring virgin coconut oil solid on a spoon

TYPES OF COCONUT OIL

The health benefits, flavor, and functionality of coconut oil vary depending on what form you get. Here are the kinds you’ll see on store shelves:

  • Virgin (or Unrefined Coconut Oil)
  • Refined Coconut Oil
  • Fractionated Coconut Oil

Let’s take a look at each one.

Virgin (or Unrefined) Coconut Oil

This is the least processed coconut oil. It’s extracted from the fresh meat of mature coconuts. Of all coconut oils, it smells and tastes the most like coconut.

Producers use multiple mechanical methods to extract virgin coconut oil; sometimes heat is used, sometimes not. There’s no industry-wide standard, as “virgin” is only a marketing term. What’s important to know is that virgin coconut oil is not extracted using chemicals or high heat. Thus, it has more antioxidants than refined coconut oil.

Virgin coconut oil has a moderate smoke point (350°F) and is best suited for sautéing over medium heat. Any higher and you risk destroying the fatty acids that make it healthy in the first place.

Melted or solid, it’s terrific for baking, particularly if you love that fresh coconut flavor.

Refined Coconut Oil

Like most refined oils, refined coconut oil is extracted with heat and chemical solvents. Its flavor is not as coconut-y, and it’s less expensive.

It’s not only refined, but bleached and deodorized. Why? Refined coconut oil is made from dried coconut meat (copra), and the process for drying the copra isn’t always sanitary. Refining, bleaching, and deodorizing (RBD, in industry terms) isn’t unique to refined coconut oil—nearly every refined cooking oil is RBD.

Refined coconut oil has its advantages, though, including a higher smoke point (400°F), which makes it suitable for sautéing over medium-high heat, and its lack of character, which is great for recipes where you don’t want a lot of coconut flavor. Like virgin coconut oil, you can bake with it.

Fractionated Coconut Oil

Fractionated coconut oil is altered to stay liquid at lower temperatures. Manufacturers do this by melting the oil and removing its main fatty acid through a process called fractionating. It sounds freaky, but it’s a much less intense process than you’d guess.

Fractionated coconut oil has the least aroma and flavor of coconut oils. It does not have the same health benefits as regular coconut oil, because the good-for-you fatty acids are the ones removed during the fractionating process.

Though its liquid form makes is easier to use in cooking, fractionated coconut oil is best used for medium-heat applications. The smoke point is 320°F.

Virgin coconut oil vs refined coconut oil

WHY IS COCONUT OIL SOMETIMES LIQUID AND SOMETIMES SOLID? 

Have you ever noticed that coconut oil is sometimes a liquid and sometimes a solid? Coconut oil melts at 76°F. In the summer, when I’m not running the air conditioner, I can pour coconut oil right out of the jar. In the winter, though, I have to dig it out with a spoon.

When coconut oil is right in between melting and solid, you may notice white clumps floating in the liquid. No need to freak – those clumps are merely bits of oil that haven’t melted yet.

Is solid coconut oil or melted coconut oil better? It depends what you’re doing.

  • If you’re sautéing, you can put a solid gob of coconut oil directly into your pan (not smoking-hot, remember!) just like you would butter.
  • When you need a specific amount, like for baking, melted coconut oil is easier to work with. If you jam a metal measuring spoon into a jar of solid coconut oil, you risk bending the handle, so always use a sturdy metal spoon to dig it out of the jar.

Melt coconut oil on the stove

THE BEST WAY TO MELT COCONUT OIL

When it comes to melting coconut oil, you have a few options: 

  • Microwave: If the coconut oil is in a glass jar, pop the whole jar right in the microwave. Otherwise, spoon the desired amount into a glass bowl or measuring cup first. Use 50 percent power (I just use the “defrost” setting”) in 30-second blasts. Monitor the microwave the entire time, and always cover the container with a paper towel to prevent spatters: coconut oil can go from solid to exploding into a huge greasy mess in mere seconds.
  • Direct heat on the stove: Spoon the desired amount into a small saucepan and heat over medium heat. Monitor the pan the entire time and swirl it occasionally until the coconut oil is evenly melted.
  • Indirect heat on the stove: If you have a glass jar, set it in a saucepan of gently simmering water. Turn off the heat and let the jar sit in the water. After 10 minutes or so, the entire jar should be melted.

Cast Iron Skillet Chocolate Chip Cookie Recipe

TIPS FOR BAKING WITH COCONUT OIL

  • Swapping coconut oil for shortening or other oils: You can sub coconut oil for another oil or shortening in recipes 1:1.
  • Swapping coconut oil for butter: Swapping coconut oil for butter is a little more complicated than oil or shortening. Coconut oil is 100% fat, while butter is about 80% fat. In some recipes, subbing coconut oil for butter 1:1 will give a slightly denser result because you’re using more fat. (I’ve noticed this mostly in cakes and quick breads.) It’s usually not noticeable enough to be a deal breaker, but if you are measuring by weight, use 20% less coconut oil than you would butter.
  • For cakes and cookies: When making cakes and cookies, there’s no need to cream the solid oil with sugar in your stand mixer, like you would with butter or shortening. Just use melted coconut oil—which is easier to measure and incorporate anyway! – unless the recipe tells you otherwise.
  • For pie dough: For a flaky crust, you do want the coconut oil to be solid. If it’s liquid at room temperature, measure what you need into a measuring cup and then refrigerate it until it’s solid.
  • For cookie dough: If you refrigerate cookie dough made with coconut oil for more than an hour, it’ll get rock-hard. So either scoop out the dough after mixing it, or make sure not to chill it too long.

HOW TO STORE COCONUT OIL

Coconut oil is very stable. It has a long shelf life, so no need to refrigerate! Store coconut oil at room temperature unless you need it solid for specific recipes.

Keep it tightly covered and out of direct light. Refined coconut oil should be good for up to 18 months. Virgin coconut oil lasts longer because it still has antioxidants to prevent rancidity. It will keep for a few years.

READY TO BAKE WITH COCONUT OIL? TRY THESE RECIPES!

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Sara Bir

Sara Bir a graduate of The Culinary Institute of America and the author of two cookbooks: The Fruit Forager’s Companion and Tasting Ohio. Past gigs include leading chocolate factory tours, slinging street cart sausages, and writing pop music criticism. Sara skates with her local roller derby team as Carrion the Librarian.

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