Ask Peter: Coconut oil
I am trying to use coconut oil in baking, rather than butter. Can I substitute it, one for one in the same volume? And what type of coconut oil should I be using? I read somewhere that if melted and added to cold ingredients, the oil can harden into lumps in the cake batter. Would this affect the baked goods? Carolyn
Like butter, lard, suet and many other “heavy” fats, coconut oil is a saturated fat, but it has none of the very bad trans-fatty acids. In years past we were forever being told to avoid all saturated fats. Now they are viewed as being less harmful to our health than previously thought, but they should still be eaten in moderation. The current trend sweeping Britain and its food media is that animal fats are way better for you than chemically treated vegetable oil products.
When I’m eating (and I am no nutritionist here) I am more inclined to want to eat a more natural product, something with real purity and high quality (animal husbandry included) than something with low fat levels. I’d rather eat one slice of buttered wholemeal toast topped with duck liver pate, than some strangely “healthy” curd cheese (with no fat) and a slice of celery on a tasteless wafer because it’s supposed to be good for me.
When it comes to substituting for dairy foods, butter in this case, then so long as you know why you’re doing it, I say go for it. As a child I had a troubling relationship with cow dairy — it blocked me up a bit if I had too much. From a really early age I realised I liked black tea rather than milky tea. When I discovered soy milk it meant I could have a latte after all. I love sheep and goat’s milk, and all their products from yoghurt through to cheese and butter. However, these days I am a fan of almost all cow dairy — but still not milk. I can’t recall the last time I drank a glass of milk. Give me cow’s butter, cheese, mascarpone, Greek-style yoghurt and whipped cream and I can’t get enough of it. But I digress ...
Substituting coconut oil for butter seems to be another trend that has come out of the United States, where most food trends and fads seem to be given the breath of life. I’ve not used a lot of coconut oil in baking over the past decade, although your query is making me think I’ll probably experiment more with it. So I went online to see what is out there and here’s what I found, which is good news:
Apart from pastry making, it seems that you can use coconut oil in most recipes in exactly the same weight as you would use butter. Brownies, scones and biscuits all seem to work really well, although some people say they don’t like the coconut aroma. That seems slightly bonkers, because the only way the aroma can be removed is through processing using a chemical reaction, which means the coconut oil will suddenly go from “healthy” to “played around with and slightly questionable”. If you don’t like the flavour or aroma of coconut then look for something else.
When it comes to making pastry, short crust pastry in particular, coconut oil doesn’t seem to be quite up to speed. It seems the reason is that coconut oil contains no water, whereas a certain percentage of butter is water. So, the solution is to replace between 5-10 per cent of the volume of oil with water.
Another thing to bear in mind, and I imagine there are many forums written on this, is that coconut oil is solid below 18C (i.e. a cold kitchen in winter, or in the fridge, which usually runs at 4C), but it melts a lot quicker than butter, at only 24C. At 24C butter will be soft, but not melted. This means that if you were to cream fat and sugar, as many recipes call for, you’d be best to take your coconut oil from the fridge until it softens a little, but before it melts.
When it reaches the consistency of soft butter, whip it up with the sugar. If the mixture begins to resemble an oily mass, put the bowl back in the fridge to firm up a little. As to having coconut oil form lumps in a cold batter, I can only imagine that happening if the rest of the batter were truly chilled.
In our Ask Peter series, executive chef Peter Gordon answers your curly culinary questions. If you're stumped over something food-related, send your question to firstname.lastname@example.org keep checking in for answers. You can read more on Peter on his website, have a read of his Ask Peter articles or check out his recipes on our site.