A FEW years ago I noticed something odd at the health food store. There, rubbing elbows with the extra-virgin olive oil and cold-pressed canola oil was virtually the last fat I expected to see in such esteemed company: coconut oil.
The last time I checked, coconut oil was supposed to be the devil himself in liquid form, with more poisonous artery-clogging, cholesterol-raising, heart-attack-causing saturated fat than butter, lard or beef tallow.
Its bad reputation caused a panic at the concession stands back in 1994, when the Center for Science in the Public Interest put out a study claiming that a large movie-theater popcorn, hold the butter, delivered as much saturated fat as six Big Macs. “Theater popcorn ought to be the Snow White of snack foods, but it’s been turned into Godzilla by being popped in highly saturated coconut oil,” Michael Jacobson, the executive director of the center, a consumer group that focuses on food and nutrition, said at the time.
So given all this greasy baggage, what was coconut oil doing in a health food store? In fact, it has recently become the darling of the natural-foods world. Annual sales growth at Whole Foods “has been in the high double digits for the last five years,” said Errol Schweizer, the chain’s global senior grocery coordinator.
Two groups have helped give coconut oil its sparkly new makeover. One is made up of scientists, many of whom are backtracking on the worst accusations against coconut oil. And the other is the growing number of vegans, who rely on it as a sweet vegetable fat that is solid at room temperature and can create flaky pie crusts, crumbly scones and fluffy cupcake icings, all without butter.
My curiosity stirred, I brought some home and experimented. I quickly learned that virgin coconut oil has a haunting, nutty, vanilla flavor. It’s even milder and richer tasting than butter, sweeter and lighter textured than lard, and without any of the bitterness you sometimes get in olive oil.
Its natural sweetness shines in baked goods and sautés, and is particularly wonderful paired with bitter greens, which soften and mellow under the oil’s gentle touch. And the saturated fat in coconut oil makes it a good choice in pastries, whether you avoid animal fats or simply want to pack a little more coconut flavor into that coconut cream pie.
But before I get to the cupcakes, let’s start with the science.
According to Thomas Brenna, a professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University who has extensively reviewed the literature on coconut oil, a considerable part of its stigma can be traced to one major factor.
“Most of the studies involving coconut oil were done with partially hydrogenated coconut oil, which researchers used because they needed to raise the cholesterol levels of their rabbits in order to collect certain data,” Dr. Brenna said. “Virgin coconut oil, which has not been chemically treated, is a different thing in terms of a health risk perspective. And maybe it isn’t so bad for you after all.”
Partial hydrogenation creates dreaded trans fats. It also destroys many of the good essential fatty acids, antioxidants and other positive components present in virgin coconut oil. And while it’s true that most of the fats in virgin coconut oil are saturated, opinions are changing on whether saturated fats are the arterial villains they were made out to be. “I think we in the nutrition field are beginning to say that saturated fats are not so bad, and the evidence that said they were is not so strong,” Dr. Brenna said.
Plus, it turns out, not all saturated fats are created equal.
Marisa Moore, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association, a nonprofit association of nutritionists, said, “Different types of saturated fats behave differently.”
The main saturated fat in coconut oil is lauric acid, a medium chain fatty acid. Lauric acid increases levels of good HDL, or high-density lipoprotein, and bad LDL, or low-density lipoprotein, in the blood, but is not thought to negatively affect the overall ratio of the two.
She went on to say that while it is still uncertain whether coconut oil is actively beneficial the way olive oil is, small amounts probably are not harmful. The new federal Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that no more than 10 percent of total dietary calories a day come from saturated fat. For a 2,000-calorie diet, that’s about 20 grams.
Any number of health claims have been made for lauric acid. According to proponents, it’s a wonder substance with possible antibacterial, antimicrobial, antiviral properties that could also, in theory, combat H.I.V., clear up acne and speed up your metabolism. Researchers are skeptical.
“There are a lot of claims that coconut oil may have health benefits, but there is no concrete scientific data yet to support this,” said Dr. Daniel Hwang, a research molecular biologist specializing in lauric acid at the Western Human Nutrition Research Center at the University of California, Davis.
But, he added, “Coconut is good food, in moderation.”
It seems safe to say that if I eat it just once in a while, coconut oil probably isn’t going to give me a heart attack, make me thinner or ward off the flu. What I really wanted to know was, how can I cook with it?
This is where the vegan cupcakes come in. Coconut oil can be whipped into a buttercream-like fluffiness while retaining its gentle vanilla flavor.
Elizabeth Schuler, who writes the blog mycommunaltable.com, started baking with coconut oil after her son’s severe allergies to tree nuts, eggs and dairy were diagnosed. She searched out vegan recipes and was surprised by the number that relied on margarine and Crisco, a no-go as far as she was concerned.
“I try to keep a nonprocessed-foods home,” she said.
Then she discovered coconut oil at her local Whole Foods. When her own research led her to conclude that eating it in small amounts is O.K., she started baking cakes and whipping up icings with it. She also uses the oil any time she wants to add a mellow coconut flavor to a dish.
Allison Beck, a natural foods enthusiast, and a blogger and editor at thedailymeal.com, fell in love with coconut oil when she saw it used in a Thomas Keller recipe for a chocolate ice cream topping that had a texture nearly identical to that of the commercial product Magic Shell (which also contains coconut oil), but a far richer, more fudgy flavor.
“That sauce is incredible,” Ms. Beck said. “You pour it on ice cream and it hardens immediately.”
She also mixes virgin coconut oil in oatmeal for creaminess and flavor, uses it to sauté greens, and has successfully played around with it in brownies and banana bread.
“It’s amazing in pastry,” said Michele Forbes, the chef at Angelica Kitchen, a venerable vegan restaurant in the East Village. In pies, “it gives a nice flaky crust that stays crisp without being bad for you.”
In my flurry of experimenting, I found that virgin coconut oil had a deep coconut flavor that persists even after cooking. Refined coconut oil, which has been processed enough to raise the temperature at which it begins to smoke, lacks the same coconut profundity, but supposedly works better for stir- and deep-frying. In my recipe testing, however, the smoke point of virgin coconut oil was not a problem.
Melted and cooled, virgin coconut oil worked beautifully in my favorite olive oil poundcake, yielding a loaf with a tight, golden crumb and gentle coconut fragrance that I enhanced with lime zest, almonds and a grating of fresh nutmeg.
I also like coconut oil for sautéing vegetables and aromatics, especially onions. They absorb the sweetness of the oil and pass that lovely nuance on to the whole dish. In one memorable meal, I sautéed scallions in coconut oil, which managed to perfume an entire pan of plump, juicy shrimp spiked with garlic, ginger and coriander.
And I may never go back to olive oil for roasting sweet potatoes, not when coconut oil enhanced their caramelized flavor while adding a delicate coconut essence.
But my favorite new way to use coconut oil is for popcorn. The oil brings out the nutty sweetness of the corn itself while adding a rich creamy sensation, without having to pour melted butter on the top. Of course, the movie theaters knew it all along.
New York TImes