Butter and coconut oil have a lot in common from a health standpoint. They are both full of saturated fats, which have had their negative health effects exaggerated (somewhat) in the past. Neither oil is particularly good for you even if they do have health benefits that help to offset their drawbacks. Both oils can enhance the flavor and texture of dishes, but they are not always interchangeable. This SPICEography Showdown takes a look at how they compare to help you decide which to use.
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How does butter differ from coconut oil?
Butter and coconut oil come from different sources as you might expect. Butter is churned from milk or cream while coconut oil is extracted from the fresh or dried meat of the coconut. Coconut oil is completely vegan while butter is not.
The different sources of these fats account for their different flavor profiles. As a dairy product, butter has the rich milkiness that comes from the butterfat and milk proteins it contains. Coconut oil can have the coconut flavor if it is unrefined, or it can have the neutral flavor of the refined oil.
The smoke points of butter and those of both kinds of coconut oil are different. Butter has a relatively low smoke point of around 302 degrees Fahrenheit (150 °C). The smoke point of unrefined coconut oil is a little higher at about 350 degrees, but both are still pretty low when compared to refined coconut oil, which can be heated to 400 degrees before it starts to generate smoke.
Butter’s color is the familiar yellow that can range from pale to vivid depending on the cow’s diet. Coconut oil in its solid form can range from white that is clear and colorless at room temperature to a very pale yellow.
If your recipe calls for one, can you use the other?
You can use butter as a substitute for any coconut oil, but it works best as a replacement for refined coconut oil which doesn’t have the distinctive coconut flavor. Butter will be a good substitute for unrefined coconut oil if you don’t want the coconut flavor in your dish.
Keep in mind that butter will burn at a much lower temperature than refined coconut oil will so it probably won’t be a good replacement for frying. In baked goods recipes you can use butter as a 1:1 substitute for coconut oil.
You can use coconut oil in place of butter in many baking recipes. Use coconut oil in its solid form if you are making pie crusts. Melting it will make your piecrust less flaky. If you use the unrefined oil as your butter substitute, you will lose the buttery richness but gain an equally rich and sweet coconut flavor. You can also use coconut oil as a vegan substitute for butter.
Both coconut oils can serve as versatile frying oils without the strict temperature limitations of butter. Refined coconut oil will be a lot more versatile since its smoke point is almost 100 degrees higher than that of butter.
When should you use butter, and when should you use coconut oil?
Use butter when you want the buttery flavor and richness. Nothing else will provide the same kind of dairy creaminess.
Use coconut oil when you want the coconut flavor that comes with the unrefined oil or the higher smoke point of the refined oil. Coconut oil is also your best option if you are cooking certain Indian dishes such as those from the state of Kerala.