Clearing up coconut confusion

Coconut isn’t just for dessert. A can of coconut milk or coconut cream can completely transform a recipe.

We get questions all the time from customers and cooks about when and how to use coconut milk, coconut cream and coconut water.

Coconut isn’t just for dessert, a can of coconut milk or coconut cream can completely transform a recipe — but who knew it could be so confusing?

Trolling the supermarket, there are literally coconut products in every single aisle. You can buy a half a dozen different products that go by the same or very similar names and unfortunately, they aren’t always interchangeable.

• Coconut water is not coconut milk.  The uber fashionable “coconut water” drinks are generally served in single serving containers and can be found in the refrigerated section beside the $4 energy drinks.  Coconut water is made from the watery liquid found inside fresh young coconuts. It is meant for drinking, not cooking. Hipsters and health nuts love it.

• Coconut milk “beverage” can be purchased sweetened or unsweetened. It is meant to be a dairy substitute made from coconut milk and sugar. It can be found in a one litre tetra pack beside the soy and almond milk, and it is meant to go on your breakfast cereal.

• Coconut cream is thick, almost like a stiffly whipped cream. It is made from steeping shredded coconut in hot water in a four to one ratio. It is usually sold in smaller sized cans or small tetra boxes and unless it says it is sweetened, it isn’t.

The sweetened cream of coconut is just like sweetened condensed milk, it is meant mostly for adding to cocktails and for baking. It is what makes a pina colada so tasty, but on its own it is intensely sweet and not meant for cooking.

• Coconut milk is the consistency of whole cow’s milk and it’s what you want for cooking. Coconut milk is made by steeping shredded coconut with water in equal parts and it doesn’t have any sweeteners added. Coconut milk in a can sometimes separates into a thick layer of coconut cream atop a watery liquid. To recombine the two, shake the can before opening it or pour the contents into a bowl and whisk the creamy part into the water for a milkier consistency.

Making your own coconut milk isn’t hard but seriously, why would you do that when you can buy a perfectly good can of it for under $2 and it will store in your pantry for years?

Now that the coconut cream is clear as mud, what do you do with it?  Well, the options are virtually endless but you can start by using it as a cooking liquid for your rice, add a cardamom pod and a star anise or two for a sweet savory rice to accompany something spicy.

Use it instead of milk in your favorite cake mix recipe, add a bit of it to your morning oatmeal with some cinnamon and a few raisins, create a spicy Thai curry or use it instead of milk when you make tapioca pudding.

Once you open a can, if your recipe only calls for half you can freeze the other half and use it next time.

Buy some, try it, have some fun and cook something delicious.

Angie Quaale is a local foodie and owner of Well Seasoned Gourmet Food Store.

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