Coconut oil is a type of vegetable oil made from pressing the natural oil out of coconut meat. It can be used for a wide variety of culinary uses, including cooking and baking. It has a slightly sweet and nutty flavor to it but when used in conjunction with other ingredients, you are unlikely to taste it. It is not an ideal frying oil because it has a lower smoke point than other vegetable oils, such as canola and peanut oil, but it is popular for creating stir-fry and sauteed dishes. It is solid at room temperature because it has a very high saturated fat content, which is unusual for vegetable fats. This high saturation means that coconut oil is also extremely resistant to rancidity, and has an extremely long shelf life, even when stored at room temperature.
Because it is a solid at room temperature, coconut oil can be used much like shortening. It can be cut into flour to form a flaky dough and it can be creamed with sugar for muffins or other baked goods. It is very popular with vegans and vegetarians, but has gained a much wider audience in the past few years as new research has shown that the saturated fat in coconut oil is not necessarily a cause for concern.
For years, the high saturated fat content kept consumers away from using coconut oil in their recipes. More recently, new research on fats and on coconut oil has changed the perception of this product. Trans fats are now widely regarded as being much more harmful than saturated fats, for instance. Also, much of the saturated fat in coconut oil is in the form of lauric acid. Lauric acid is known to boost “good” HDL cholesterol and new studies have begun to suggest that their might be links between lauric acid and a boost to the immune system. Even as more research is done on coconut oil, it is still a fat and best used in moderation – but it can be a great ingredient to work with and is well worth trying in your kitchen.