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Cowgirl Chef: Why I’m cooking with coconut oil

05/15/2013 12:00 AM

05/16/2013 5:30 PM

I was at the grocery store checkout the other day, and when the clerk saw that I had coconut oil in my cart, she told me she loved it so much that she’s now buying 2-pound jars every week.

“Two pounds?” I asked, trying to imagine how one would use a nearly Crisco-size can of coconut oil in seven days. “What are you doing with it?”

“Everything,” she said. “I’m cooking with it and I’m using it as a moisturizer for my body. I used to work in a hospital and I was getting sick. I quit and started using coconut oil everyday. I’m not sick anymore. It’s the coconut oil.”

I am not making this up. I was buying coconut oil because I’d tried it recently and liked how easy it was to cook with, and had heard that it was good for you.

But does coconut oil live up to the hype? Can it help reduce all of our physical ailments, from heart disease to wrinkles?

This is the same stuff, remember, that ruined eating movie popcorn for us all … or is it?

Turns out, that coconut oil was partially hydrogenated (evil, bad), but what I’m talking about is virgin or refined coconut oil, high in saturated fat, and now available just about everywhere.

So what’s the skinny on coconut oil? Turns out its high levels of saturated fat may not be such a bad thing, because all saturated fats are not created equal. The saturated fats in coconut oil are known as medium chain saturated fats, which the body converts into fuel and don’t raise levels of HDL, the bad cholesterol. On top of that, these fats contain lauric acid, known for its antiviral, antifungal and antimicrobial properties, which is why ayurvedic docs in India have long used coconut oil to kill bacteria and viruses.

Proponents of coconut oil say that it can boost energy, aid digestion, help with weight loss, and is an antioxidant, too.

That’s all fine, but how does it taste, and how does it cook?

I’m loving it. Because coconut oil has a high flash point, I’m using it instead of olive oil for sauteing and roasting veggies (as in the kale and broccoli tart recipes below). I’m also swapping it out for butter in cookies and for making crusts, and getting the same crispy results.

Know that there’s virgin or unrefined coconut oil, which is simply the oil pressed out of the meat of the coconut without anything added. That is great when you want that fragrant coconut taste, but since I’m not a coconut fan, I’ve been using the refined coconut oil instead — mild and creamy and slightly sweet.

It is also just the right thing, I’ve learned, to soothe sunburned, dry skin … an inevitable ailment when you’re living in Santa Fe, N.M. I may need to start buying 2-pound jars.

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