Remember about 20 years ago, when the Center for Science in the Public Interest released a study that said a tub of movie theater popcorn had as much saturated fat as six Big Macs? The culprit in that instance was partially hydrogenated coconut oil.
It’s ironic, now, because coconut oil — the extra virgin kind, not the heavily processed kind, which is full of trans fats and stripped of healthy properties — has been embraced by a wide variety of eaters, from vegans looking to replace butter in baking and those looking for a healthy substitute for vegetable oil to foodies that want to impart a unique flavor to various dishes. And don’t forget coconut milk, a staple of Thai cuisine and, some might argue, as good a base for ice cream as cow’s milk.
Don’t typically care for coconut? There’s a big difference between the shredded, sweetened dessert coconut you might be used to and the savory uses that abound for the milk and the oil. Here are some tips.
1. Virgin coconut oil and partially hydrogenated coconut oil are two different things. Virgin coconut oil is the stuff you get in a jar or a tub and is solid at room temperature; it’s not heavily processed, so it’s just the healthy fat, and none of the bad stuff. Partially hydrogenated coconut oil, like any oil that has been partially hydrogenated, is the stuff that has trans fat. And as we now know, trans fats are not good for you.
2. One of the reasons partially hydrogenated oils were used for so long is that they have a very long shelf life, and are good for baking because they also stay solid at room temperature. Virgin coconut oil has the same properties, however, so it’s an ideal and healthy replacement for butter or shortening in baking. While it is high in saturated fats, it’s also full of those healthy fatty acids, such as lauric acid, which can raise levels of high-density lipoprotein (“good”) cholesterol.
3. Virgin coconut oil has essentially the same smoke point as extra virgin olive oil — the point at which oil starts to smoke, making it taste bitter and imparting carcinogenic properties. When using it, or olive oil, make sure whatever you’re doing doesn’t get above 400 degrees. A high-heat stir fry in a wok? Don’t use coconut oil. A light saute in a pan? Coconut oil. Roasting a chicken in the oven at 425 degrees? Not with coconut oil. A slow roast of root vegetables at 375? Ideal.
4. One of the nice things about coconut oil is the nutty, mellow, ever-so-slightly coconut-y flavor it imparts to whatever you’re making. It livens up kale or spinach. It makes sauteed shrimp or chicken come alive. Roasted brussels sprouts or carrots take on a sweet flavor profile. Replace oil in a brownie or cake mix with coconut oil, and watch out. Putting it in a graham cracker crust or pie crust, as you would butter, redefines baking. It’s also a great base for Asian-inspired salad dressings, or homemade mayonnaise.
5. BDN reader Alicia Champlin of Bangor passed along her favorite way to use coconut oil — in coffee. Putting half a tablespoon of coconut oil in six ounces of coffee makes a smooth, creamy, beverage, though Champlin warns it does need a fair bit of stirring to keep it all combined.
6. Most people know coconut milk as either an ingredient in Thai curries, or in a Pina Colada — but it’s so much more. Coconut milk ice cream is an ideal dairy-free substitute for regular ice cream; vegans swear by it, over soy or rice milk ice cream. Try hot cocoa made with coconut milk. Add it to sweet potato, butternut squash or garlicky mashed potatoes for a creamy Thanksgiving side, or cook rice with it. Or, make a dairy-free chowder, using coconut milk instead of cream or evaporated milk.
7. Renowned chef Thomas Keller makes a version of Magic Shell — the flavored syrup that hardens into a shell once it hits ice cream — that uses coconut oil. To make, melt 1 cup of semi-sweet chocolate chips in a double boiler. Once melted, add two tablespoons virgin coconut oil. Keep it lukewarm until you’re ready to pour it over ice cream, and voila – homemade Magic Shell.
8. It’s not a food use, but it is a delightful side benefit — the oil is great for your skin and hair. BDN reader Jennifer Wilson of Bangor swears by coconut oil as a moisturizer for herself and her toddler daughter. For many of the same reasons, it also can be used as a hair conditioner. The old-fashioned dental practice of oil-pulling — swishing a tablespoon of oil around in your mouth for a few minutes to kill bacteria and reduce plaque — is an ideal use for coconut oil, as it has a generally pleasant taste, and the lauric acid mentioned above is thought to have antimicrobial properties.
9. Virgin coconut oil is readily available in larger grocery stores, as well as at natural food stores and specialty grocery stores such as Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s. It generally retails for between $7 and $10 for a 16-ounce jar.