Coconut oil is (still!) trending — and for good reason. It can be used in sautés, in cakes and cookies, or even in place of butter on your toast. But if you’re only using coconut oil in the kitchen, you're missing out. It’s also an all-purpose beauty solution opens in a new tab, a must-have for pets opens in a new tab, and a total lifesaver at home opens in a new tab. Read on to learn absolutely everything you ever wanted to know about the tropical essential.
What is coconut oil?
Coconut oil is made from the fruits of coconut palm trees, which grow in hot, rainy tropical climates. There are two main types of coconut oil: refined and virgin.
Refined coconut oil is made of copra, coconut meat that has been scraped out of ripe coconuts and dried for several days in the sun or in a kiln. The refining process strips away some nutrients and makes the coconut flavor much less pronounced. Refined coconut oil has a higher smoke point (365 degrees), which makes it a better option for higher heat cooking and baking.
Virgin coconut oil is from fresh coconuts, not copra. The coconut flavor is much more pronounced, and it has a lower smoke point (280 degrees), so it’s more appropriate for no-cook or no bake recipes, or light sautéing in dishes where its coconut flavor will enhance the recipe.
You may also see organic coconut oil, meaning it is made from certified organic coconuts, or the Fair Trade label, which means the coconuts were grown in conditions that take into account worker conditions, environmental impact and fair compensation for everyone in the supply chain.
Coconut oil has a melting point of 78 degrees, warmer than that and the substance is liquid; when it is stored at cooler temperatures, including in your refrigerator, it’s solid.
Is coconut oil good for you?
First some background: Coconut oil was once given a bad rap because of its high percentage of saturated fats. Now that scientists better understand the role of fats in a balanced diet and the unique properties of the fats found in coconut oil, it’s on the upswing again.
Not all types of saturated fats behave the same way when you eat them. Coconut oil contains several different types of saturated fatty acids including lauric, myristic, palmitic and caprylic acids. (Virgin coconut oil contains the most lauric acid.) They fall into a special class of fatty acids known as medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs). Unlike long-chain triglycerides, MCTs are metabolized faster than their longer counterparts.
The upshot: coconut oil doesn’t entirely deserve its bad nutritional rap. However, that doesn’t mean the versatile, sweet-flavored oil is a nutrition gold mine — coconut oil is 90% saturated fat. (Butter is about 60% saturated fat for comparison.) While the MCTs in the tropical oil appear to boost HDL (the “good” cholesterol), they also raise LDL (the “bad” cholesterol). Coconut oil — especially the virgin type with lauric acid — can be used in moderation as you would any fat.
How do you cook with coconut oil?
Fans of cooking with coconut oil opens in a new tabsay it has a natural sweetness that adds a delicious flavor not only to baked goods, but also stir-fries, sautés and roasted vegetables.
When you're baking, you can use coconut oil in place of butter, shortening or oil in everything from coconut oil biscuits opens in a new tab to coconut crumb cake opens in a new tab to pie crusts opens in a new tab. It’s a favorite for dairy-free fans or vegans as a stand in for the butter in buttercream frosting, or milk in ice cream like in this raw banana ice cream opens in a new tab. (Pro tip: When baking, it’s best to use recipes that have been specifically developed for coconut oil.)
And, it's no surprise that coconut oil is often called for in curries, like this chicken and vegetable curry soup opens in a new tab and bean dishes, yet it’s equally wonderful with coconut-roasted sweet potatoes opens in a new tab, scrambled eggs or even fried chicken, like these crispy coconut chicken tenders opens in a new tab or fish, like this seared tuna with cumin opens in a new tab. You can also melt and drizzle over toast, oatmeal, quinoa, or popcorn, or combine with chocolate to create a fun ice cream opens in a new tab.
More coconut oil recipes:
What else can coconut oil do?
Coconut oil isn’t just good for your insides, cosmetic-grade coconut oil (typically virgin/unrefined and sold in the Whole Body section of Whole Foods Market) offers a host of benefits for your skin and hair.
Body Moisturizer. With its high fat content, coconut oil makes a rich moisturizer. Slather it directly onto your hands, elbows, feet or other dry patches or try making these luxurious DIY Moisturizing Lotion Bars opens in a new tab.
Cuticle balm. Rub a dab of coconut oil directly onto your cuticles to soften them.
Eye makeup remover. You can use coconut oil straight from the jar dabbed on a cotton ball to remove eye makeup — even stubborn waterproof mascara.
Facial cleanser. Oil facial washes are everywhere, and you can save money by making your own: Massage a teaspoonful of coconut oil into your skin then rinse away with warm water to clean your skin without drying it out. Or try this DIY Makeup Remover opens in a new tab. Note: both work best for normal to dry skin types.
Shaving cream. You’ll be amazed at how smoothly your razor glides over your skin when you swap out traditional shaving cream for coconut oil. Be sure to rinse out the tub or sink well afterwards as it can make ceramic and porcelain slick.
Hand and body scrub. Coconut oil makes a great base for a moisturizing DIY hand and body scrub opens in a new tab.
Massage oil. Scoop a tablespoon of coconut oil out of the jar, warm it up between your hands and give yourself or a lucky loved one a rub down. It’s an ideal carrier oil for essential oils, so add in a drop or two of your favorite scent like lavender, eucalyptus or citrus oil opens in a new tab for an aromatherapy massage.
Lip scrub. A gentle lip scrub leaves lips kissably smooth. This DIY lip scrub opens in a new tabwith brown sugar and honey is sweet enough to eat — and all natural so you can!
Hair mask. Coconut oil makes for a super moisturizing hair mask, especially for super curly, dry hair. Try this DIY Ultra-Hydrating Hair Mask opens in a new tab once a week for 15 minutes for healthy hair that smells as good as it looks.
Frizz tamer and shine serum. Warm up a tiny amount of coconut oil between your palms, then gently glide hands over hair. It helps keep hair from frizzing out and flyaways, while adding a light, natural-looking shine.
Bath oil. for a relaxing, hydrating soak.
Dogs and cats(Always check with your veterinarian first!)
Cracked pads. Work coconut oil into cracked paw pads to soften and hydrate. In winter, dab coconut oil onto your dog’s paws before a walk to help protect against salted or sanded sidewalks.
Soften skin. Massage into dry or irritated areas to moisturize, just like you would on human skin.
Add shine to coat. Rub a small amount onto your hands and then gently pat, running your fingers through fur.
Around the house
Coconut oil can be used to clean and polish many household items.
Season a cast iron skillet with refined coconut oil before the first time you use it.
Wood furniture polish. Use a dollop of coconut oil on a dry rag to remove dust and give wood furniture a nice sheen. (Always do a patch test first on a hidden spot.)
Leather polish. Some leathers may benefit from a coconut oil rub down to help keep them soft and supple. Use a dry cloth and always do a small patch test first.
Buy it! We’ve got it!
Cooking and baking:
365 Everyday Value ® Organic Coconut Oil (Download the Whole Foods Market App opens in a new tab to check out this deal: Save $1 on any ONE (1) 14–16 oz 365 Everyday Value® Organic Coconut Oil. Valid 7/27-8/23/16.*)
Artisana Organics Raw Coconut Butter
Nature’s Way Coconut Oil EFA Gold Pure Extra Virgin
Nature’s Way Premium Coconut Oil
Nutiva Coconut Butter
Beauty and more:
Spectrum Essentials Organic Virgin Coconut Oil Packs
Spectrum Essentials Organic Unrefined Coconut Oil Vanilla Lavender
Alaffia Fair Trade African Coconut Oil
Dr Bronners Coconut Oil White Kernel
Dr Bronners Organic Coconut Oil
*Coupon good one time only. While supplies last. Selection varies. Valid customer bar code must be presented at checkout. Offer will be applied at checkout during the qualifying shop. No rain checks. Cannot be combined with any other offer or applied to previous orders. Participating U.S. Whole Foods Market® stores only. Void where prohibited.
Additional reporting by Kathy K. Downie, RDN