Refined Versus Unrefined Coconut Oil: What’s the Difference?

Can you use both for cooking? What about baking?

July 13, 2022


Coconut oil in a glass jar. Near the jar are sweet peppers, tomatoes and a wooden spoon. Healthy food concept. Flat lay

Photo by: MIrnaPh/Getty Images

MIrnaPh/Getty Images

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By Layla Khoury-Hanold for Food Network Kitchen

Layla Khoury-Hanold is a contributor at Food Network.

In the world of cooking, coconut oil has gained traction as a healthy cooking oil, a go-to baking substitute and as a replacement for butter in vegan dishes. With several types of coconut oil lining grocery store shelves, it can be confusing to know which one to reach for. Refined or unrefined? What about virgin versus cold pressed? Here, we break down the differences between refined and unrefined coconut oil and when to use each in different cooking applications.

What Is Coconut Oil?

Coconut oil is made by extracting the fat from the coconut “meat” (the inner kernel). Unlike other plant-based oils, this fat is predominantly saturated fat, which is why it’s solid at room temperature. Coconut oil can either be unrefined or refined. Both refined and unrefined coconut oil have similar nutrition properties and contain 120 calories per tablespoon. As with other cooking oils, coconut oil should be used in moderation. To learn more about coconut oil’s nutritional profile and whether it’s the right oil for you, check out the story Is Coconut Oil Good For You? from Food Network’s nutritionist.

What Is Unrefined Coconut Oil?

As the name suggests, unrefined coconut oil doesn’t undergo additional processing once it has been pressed from the coconut meat. Unrefined coconut oil, also known as “virgin coconut oil,” can be extracted either using a dry or wet method. For the dry method, a machine is used to press coconut oil out of the dried coconut meat (copra). The wet method, which tends to be more common, involves pressing fresh coconuts then separating the coconut oil and the coconut milk. Unrefined coconut oil can also be labelled as “cold pressed,” meaning no heat was used in the extraction method.

What Is Refined Coconut Oil?

Refined coconut oil starts with the dry processing method, which uses a machine to press the coconut oil out of the dried coconut meat (copra). Refined coconut oil undergoes additional processing such as bleaching, deodorizing or chemical refining to improve the quality of the oil for cooking purposes.

Refined Coconut Oil vs Unrefined Coconut Oil

The main difference between refined and unrefined coconut oil is how they are produced. Both unrefined coconut oil and refined coconut oil are made by pressing coconut meat, but refined coconut oil undergoes additional processing, such as bleaching and deodorizing. The production process affects characteristics such as flavor, smell and smoke point (the temperature at which oil beings to smoke).

Because unrefined coconut oil hasn’t undergone any additional processing, it has a pronounced coconut flavor and aroma, which can transfer to food when used in cooking. Unrefined coconut oil has a smoke point of 350 degrees, making it better suited for baking. Refined coconut oil does not taste or smell like coconut and has a higher smoke point (400 to 450 degrees; check product labels for guidance), making it better suited for high-temperature cooking techniques such as frying, searing or sauteing.

COCONUT OIL CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIESFood Network KitchenAllpurposeFlour, Baking Soda, Virgin Coconut Oil, Light Brown Sugar, Eggs, Vanilla Extract,Semisweet Chocolate Chips,COCONUT OIL CHOCOLATE CHIP COOKIES Food Network Kitchen Allpurpose Flour, Baking Soda, Virgin Coconut Oil, Light Brown Sugar, Eggs, Vanilla Extract, Semisweet Chocolate Chips

Photo by: Matt Armendariz ©2014, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

Matt Armendariz, 2014, Television Food Network, G.P. All Rights Reserved

When to Use Refined Coconut Oil vs Unrefined Coconut Oil

Coconut Oil In Baking

Either refined coconut oil or unrefined coconut oil work in baking, as with these Coconut Oil Chocolate Chip Cookies (pictured above) in which coconut oil stands in for butter. It comes down to preference: if you’re not a fan of coconut flavor or don’t want it to clash with other flavors in your baked goods, opt for refined coconut oil. Because coconut oil is solid at room temperature, it works well as a butter substitute for vegan baked goods calling for flaky textures, such as vegan pie dough or biscuits.

Coconut Oil In Cooking

Since refined coconut oil has a higher smoke point, it’s the better choice for high-heat cooking applications such as searing, sautéing, roasting, stir-frying or frying. Try using refined coconut oil in place of vegetable oil in stir-fries, like our fan-favorite Chicken and Broccoli Stir Fry or in fried recipes, such as The Best Fried Chicken or Coconut Shrimp. Sub in refined coconut oil for olive oil when pan-frying proteins, such Pan-Fried Salmon or Crispy Pan-Fried Pork Chops, or for high-temperature roasting, such as these Healthy Roast Fingerlings with Lemon.

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