Coconut Oil: A Versatile Fat That's More Than a Passing Fad

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

At a recent stop on my book tour, someone asked if I had any "pet" ingredients that the average baker may not have on hand. In the heat of the moment, all I could think of was malted milk powder, what I call the "umami bomb" of dessert. As handy as malted milk powder can be when it comes to layering a toasty/malty flavor into desserts, the secret workhorse of my kitchen is undoubtedly coconut oil.

Like any oil, it's a pure fat, but what sets coconut oil apart is that it's solid but creamy at room temperature (well, when "room temperature" falls between 70°F and 74°F). That means it behaves more like butter or shortening in baked goods, creaming up light and fluffy when beaten with sugar.

Coconut oil melts quickly on the tongue due to a melting point well below body temperature, so it doesn't feel greasy like shortening or cold butter. Refined coconut oils like LouAna or Nutiva are absolutely neutral, with no taste or aroma whatsoever, while virgin coconut oil can have flavor that ranges from mild to intense depending on the brand (Coco Vita is my favorite when it comes to coconuttiness).

These properties allow coconut oil to wear a number of hats in the kitchen, functioning like shortening in snickerdoodles, like fry oil with doughnuts, like butter in scones, like liquid oil in banana bread. While this is by no means a complete list of desserts where coconut oil comes in handy, these 11 recipes go a long way in demonstrating the scope of its utility.

Lemon Blueberry Scones

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Thanks to its neutral flavor, refined coconut oil makes a fantastic replacement for butter in recipes, as in this recipe for lemon blueberry scones. By taming down the toasty, brown butter flavor scones usually develop as they bake, coconut oil puts the spotlight on the the bright flavor of fresh fruit while producing a scone that's even more rich and tender.

Coconut oil has a slightly lower melting point than butter, so when using it as a replacement in your favorite recipes, it may help to refrigerate the dough after shaping it into a wheel. Once it firms up, slice and bake as directed.

Rolled Sugar Cookies

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As in fresh fruit scones, coconut oil limits browning in rolled sugar cookies. Not only does this keep the cookies pale—snowflakes stay snowy white—but coconut oil enriches the cookies and extends their shelf life beyond those made from butter alone.

Of course, sugar cookies should taste like butter, so I use a roughly 50/50 blend for the best of both worlds. Trading a bit of butter for coconut oil is a great way to help your favorite cookies last a little longer, which is especially useful for shipping holiday care packages.

Homemade Wheat Thins

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Refined coconut oil is an essential ingredient in Homemade Wheat Thins, where its neutral flavor lets the taste of whole grains and barley malt really shine—these distinctive little crackers brown too deeply when made with butter, giving them a dark and nutty sort of character.

Banana Bread

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Oil's a common ingredient in quick breads, but switching from liquid oils such as canola to solid coconut oil gives my banana bread a lingering richness that's hard to beat. To use coconut oil as a replacement for liquid oil in other quick breads, all you have to do is melt it down. As the coconut oil cools, you may notice the batter is thicker than usual, but this won't cause any ill effects (in fact, it will encourage the quick bread to crown in the oven, a rather beautiful touch).

Homemade Donettes

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If you never make doughnuts because you're turned off by that notorious fried food smell, frying with refined coconut oil's gonna rock your world. Compared to most liquid fry oils, refined coconut oil contains fewer volatile organic compounds, giving it a cleaner aroma and flavor. When I fried up these DIY Donettes in our tiny office last year, no one even realized I was in the kitchen.

Aside from giving you the ability to stealth-fry at home, refined coconut oil returns to its solid state at room temperature, which gives fried foods a lighter, crisper texture once they cool, so fried foods taste less greasy, whether you're making fish and chips or cannoli. While the same could be said of any solid fat, alternatives like lard and palm oil can be difficult to source in bulk for many folks, whereas refined coconut oil can be purchased by the gallon from warehouse clubs like Costco and Sam's, or online (by the gallon, Nutiva coconut oil is just 14 cents per ounce).

Sour Cream Pound Cake

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Due to its size and density, pound cake takes ages to bake, so adding a bit of refined coconut oil can help keep it from drying out after a long stint in the oven; better yet, the added fat from coconut oil improves the shelf life of the finished product as well. Coconut oil's a key player in my own sour cream pound cake, but it's a trick you can make use of in your own favorite recipes. Next time you make a pound cake, try replacing 25% of the butter with coconut oil for an extra dose of richness.

Digestive Biscuits

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Copycat recipes are a great place to make use of refined coconut oil, where its richness and neutral flavor help baked goods better mimic their store bought counterparts. Beyond that, refined coconut oil is a great tool for developing vegan variations of your favorite commercial snacks, such as chocolate digestive biscuits. Even my Homemade Oreos can be veganized on the fly with an equal weight of coconut oil in place of butter.

Coconut Layer Cake

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I love refined coconut oil for its neutrality for the most part, but the flavor and aroma of virgin coconut oil can be used to strategic effect. My Coconut Layer Cake and Creamy Coconut Frosting are based on my Vanilla Butter Cake and Swiss Buttercream, with virgin coconut oil standing in for a portion of the butter (among other tweaks). Aside from lending its signature flavor, coconut oil improves the shelf life of the frosted cake with its added richness.

Ginger Lemon Cremes

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As in my lemon blueberry scones, coconut oil's neutral flavor keeps the lemon flavor of my ginger lemon creme filling bright and fresh. Since coconut oil is solid at room temperature and free from water, it also keeps the powdered sugar filling thick and sturdy so it doesn't go squishing out with every bite. If you'd like to take advantage of that fact with your own favorite sandwich cookies, try using refined coconut oil instead of butter in the filling (or virgin coconut oil if you'd like to add a hint of flavor).

Cookie Butter

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Since refined coconut oil melts at a relatively low temperature, about 75°F, it's the perfect foundation for making creamy, spreadable speculoos cookie butter at home. Blended with a thick paste made from dissolved cookie crumbs, it makes a fun alternative to peanut butter in no-bake applications.

Cookies 'n Cream Cookies

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In this recipe, coconut oil stands in for 50% of the butter in what amounts to a basic sugar cookie dough. That cuts back on the toasty brown butter notes that cookies develop as they bake, giving the finished product a clean vanilla flavor that contrasts beautifully with the bold, bitter flavor of crumbled Oreos (whether store bought or homemade) for a cookies and cream-themed cookie.