Substitute For Coconut Oil?

I can't find the email, but a reader recently wrote and said she was allergic to coconut, what could she substitute for coconut oil? Would canola do? Calls for a slightly more complex answer than you might think.

It depends, you see, on what you're using the oil for -- are you sauteing? Or are you using it for shortening in a baking recipe? These are my two most common uses for coconut oil.

I would be unlikely to use canola; I'm not a fan. It's highly processed stuff. Further, it's a variant of an oil that historically has been used not for food, but for varnish. The original is toxic; canola has been bred to reduce the dose of toxic erucic acid. I'm just not certain the stuff is... well, food, you know?

For sauteing, the possibilities are endless, and the oil I chose would depend on the flavor of the dish. I might use olive oil, or butter, or bacon grease, or, if I wanted a bland fat, peanut or macadamia oil, or possibly lard.

For baking, however, the choices narrow. I use coconut oil for baking because it makes a good substitute for the nasty, dangerous, artificially saturated vegetable shortenings like Crisco. However, in baking, coconut oil must be used in its solid state. This means that if it's summer, and your home is warm enough that your coconut oil is liquid, you need to refrigerate it for baking, or you'll get a nasty, greasy finished product.

To substitute for coconut oil in baking, you'll need another solid fat. You could use butter, but of course it has a distinct flavor, and is expensive. It also yields a somewhat less flaky result, though of course it's super-tasty, and very nutritious. You could perhaps use palm oil, another highly saturated tropical oil traditionally used in tropical climates, and widely used in commercial baked goods before those wankers at the Center For Science In The Public Interest (CSPI, feh!) convinced many commercial bakers that somehow hydrogenated fats would be safer. (CSPI is also why McD's started using nasty vegetable oil for their fries instead of traditional tallow. CSPI has a lot to answer for.)

But the obvious choice for a substitute for coconut oil in baking is lard. Why? Because it was lard that vegetable shortening was originally invented to displace. Lard was a standard fat for baking for centuries; my grandmother used it in her pie crusts.

However, the lard available in buckets or blocks in your grocery store is not what you're looking for. That sad substitute for the real thing has been bleached, refined, and often hydrogenated to make it stay solid at room temperature. Why does it need to be hydrogenated to stay at room temperature? Because in its natural state, lard is 48% monounsaturates, and only 42% saturates. That means it's soft or even liquid at room temperature -- just like the bacon grease I keep by my stove is. After all, bacon grease is just flavored lard.

How are you going to get untampered-with lard? If you have locally raised pasture-fed pork being sold nearby, they should also have buckets of nice, healthful, natural lard available; I have just such a bucket in my refrigerator.

If you don't, then you'll have to get creative. Ask the Nice Meat Guys at the local grocery store if they can get some for you. If not, ask them to save you any fat they trim off of pork. Tell them you'll pay for it -- they shouldn't charge a lot. To turn those meat scraps into lard, put 'em in a big kettle with an equal quantity of water, and simmer till the fat's melted and has risen to the top. Skim it off, drain off all the water you can, and refrigerate. Congratuations! You now have natural lard.

The best-quality lard is leaf lard, which is made from the visceral fat, the fat surrounding the internal organs, especially the kidneys. If your meat guys can get it for you, you'll pay extra, but it's the blandest lard with the best texture. However, I have had good results making pie crust using my regular lard from pasture-raised pigs half and half with butter (and Carb Quik.)

Another traditional fat you could consider is schmaltz, aka chicken fat. My mother told me it's what my grandma used to use to make brownies, and they were wonderful. If you save the fat and skin from chickens and simmer it as for lard, you should get nice, bland schmaltz. Or you could look for a grocery store in a Jewish neighborhood; schmaltz is traditional in Jewish cookery.

Hope this helps!