Extra-virgin olive oil may have had its day in the sun. Coconut oils are taking over. They have become the darling of health-conscious cooks. Culinary nutritionist Tricia Williams, founder of Food Matters NYC, explains.

Sally Swift: What do we need to know when we buy coconut oil?

Tricia Williams Tricia Williams

Tricia Williams: I think what's really important is to look for extra-virgin cold-pressed coconut oil the same way you would olive oil. This way you're seeking out the highest-quality products out there.

SS: How do you use it?

TW: There are so many ways I like to use coconut oil. Traditional dessert recipes that use butter, I like to substitute coconut oil. I particularly like it in brownies -- the chocolate and the coconut flavors together are just beautiful. The coconut oil adds such a moisture to any kind of baking products. Banana bread is particularly great with it.

SS: Do you replace it at the same amount as the butter that's called for?

TW: You would, yes.

SS: What about baking recipes that use vegetable oils? Can it stand in there?

TW: Yes, it's an easy swap out.

SS: What about savory cooking?

TW: There are so many things you can do with coconut oil in savory cooking. Spectrum makes a spray coconut oil, so if you're calorie conscious and want to cut back, you can use the spray version.

I like to sear wild salmon in coconut oil and top it with something like mangoes and chilies with a little cilantro and lime. The coconut flavor on the fish is subtle, but it adds another level of richness to the salmon.

Curry Roasted Sweet Potatoes Williams' recipe: Curry Roasted Sweet Potatoes

One of my other favorite things to do is either take butternut squash or sweet potatoes and toss them with coconut oil, cinnamon and some sea salt and roast them in the oven. Coconut oil can take really high heat, so it can go up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit before becoming unstable. You can get some really nice high heat roasting on it.

SS: Can you warm it and drizzle it like you would an olive oil over a piece of fish or over some vegetables?

TW: You absolutely can. You definitely need to warm it so it turns into a liquid -- it remains at a solid state at room temperature. But you can certainly drizzle it. Making a warm vinaigrette is a wonderful idea.

SS: Do you keep it in the fridge or do you leave it out on the shelf?

TW: If you're going through it fast enough, you can leave it out on the shelf. If you work with it directly from the fridge, it is rock hard and kind of difficult to scoop out. My suggestion is if you do store it in the fridge, take it out 20 minutes before you're going to use it so it's easier to work with.

SS: What are the health benefits? It's a solid fat, so in theory it should be a fat that's not good for us.

TW: It's a saturated fat. But science shows that the type of saturated fat it is -- it's a medium-chained fatty acid -- it doesn't enter the body the same ways that saturated fat from red meat would.

It's interesting that if you look at coconut oil, it's heralded as a superfood because of all of its wonderful effects. It's full of antioxidants, it's antimicrobial so it's good for the immune system, and because it is a saturated fat, it really helps you stay fuller longer. I always tell my clients that it's the type of fat that helps you lose fat. It's a really powerful tool.

SS: I had never even thought about that, but there is a satiation level.

TW: I have clients who even put a teaspoon in their smoothie in the morning. It just helps them stay fuller longer throughout the day.

SS: Do you have some brands of coconut oil that you love to use?

TW: My No. 1 favorite brand, Sunfood, makes a cold-pressed extra-virgin coconut oil. It's interesting, we use so much of it. If you use so much of it at home, you can buy it in bulk by the gallon from them, which is great. I really like Spectrum's coconut oil spray. It's terrific for making pancakes, searing fish, whatever it is that you like to do, and for using a smaller amount of oil.

SS: It will be interesting to see if boutique coconut oils start popping up.

TW: I bet they will.

Sally Swift
Sally Swift is the managing producer and co-creator of The Splendid Table. Before developing the show, she worked in film, video and television, including stints at Twin Cities Public Television, Paisley Park, and Comic Relief with Billy Crystal. She also survived a stint as segment producer on The Jenny Jones Show.