In which I answer a leftover question from a previous week’s chat:
Recipes sometimes call for refined or unrefined coconut oil. What’s the difference? The places where I shop have just one basic coconut oil. Should I shop elsewhere?
There’s a noticeable difference, and there are definitely occasions where you’d want to pick one over the other.
Unrefined coconut oil is extracted from fresh coconut meat, and it smells and tastes like coconut. So for recipes where you want a coconut taste to come through, unrefined is what you want. It’s sometimes labeled “pure” or “virgin” or even “extra-virgin.” Unlike with olive oil, there’s no widely accepted definition of “virgin” or “extra-virgin” in coconut oil production; those are basically marketing terms. Some unrefined coconut oils are also referred to as “raw,” which indicates the oil has not been exposed to heat during the extraction process. Whether heat is good or bad is a matter of dispute.
Refined coconut oil is made from dried coconut. It has been filtered and deodorized and retains little, if any, coconut character. So for recipes where you don’t want to taste coconut, refined is the best choice. Because it has lost some of its nutrients, some people think it’s an inferior product, but it definitely has its uses in cooking.
Beyond flavor and aroma, there’s another difference. Unrefined coconut oil has a smoke point — the temperature at which it breaks down and starts to smoke — of 350 degrees (about the same as vegetable shortening), which is low, so you might not want to choose this one for serious frying; refined coconut oil, with a smoke point of 400 degrees (about the same as canola oil), may be a better choice for that.
My go-to supermarket sells both kinds, so I imagine that if you shopped around, you could find a store that carries both.
Search our Recipe Finder for coconut oil recipes, including these:
Carrot Waffles With Coconut Cream. Coconut oil in the waffles complements the coconut cream topping.
Nina’s Vegan Aquafaba Butter. Here you use refined coconut oil, which has more of a buttery taste than the unrefined variety.
Vegan Pumpkin Pie With Coconut Cream. The crust is built with chilled, solid coconut oil instead of butter.
Amazing Lemon Cannellini Cake. Coconut oil flavors both the cake and the frosting.
Kerala Fish Curry. Coconut, seafood and curry always play well together.
Sweet Tahinis. These cookies call for the refined oil because of its higher smoke point.
Got a culinary question of your own? You’re in luck, because the first Free Range chat of 2017 begins at noon today. Probable hot topic: the WaPo #5Diets project. Five Washington Post staff members have embarked on different diets during January, and we’ll follow their progress throughout the month. Today’s special guest is Bring It! columnist Cathy Barrow, who this week teaches us how to make a tipsy trifle, a mash-up of two classic and pantry-friendly desserts. And, as usual, two lucky chatters will snag a free book.