A Guide to Coconut Milk, Coconut Oil, and the Many Other Coconut Food Products in the Grocery Store
Here's what to buy and how to use these versatile and delicious foods.
Sure, you can open a coconut, but with a wide range of coconut products available in stores, you don't always need to. Whether you're into cooking sweet or savory dishes, coconut has a place in your kitchen and our guide explains what to do with coconut and which coconut food products to use when. We even included a few coconut recipes to help you put your new purchases to good use.
The best known and most widely available coconut food product is coconut milk. It is a useful and delicious ingredient whether you are lactose intolerant or just looking to add creamy, rich coconut flavor to recipes. As a shelf-stable product, it's easy to keep a can of coconut milk on hand for when you want to use it, and it works well in a wide range of dishes like curry, chia pudding, and marinades. Coconut milk is usually found in the health food, Asian, or Latin American sections of the grocery store. Brands vary in consistency and nuttiness, so try a few to find out which you like best. Pro tip: If the coconut milk separates into a creamy white layer on top (which is known as coconut cream, more on that below), and liquid on the bottom, blend or whisk it to bring it back together.
There is another type of coconut milk often found with alternative milks in the refrigerator aisle. This coconut milk is almost always emulsified, which keeps the fat from separating out of the milk. It has a creamy consistency like dairy milk and is less rich than the canned variety, which is better suited to cooking. This type of coconut milk is mainly used as a milk substitute in coffees, smoothies, or over cereal.
Popular as a low calorie hydrating drink that is also naturally high in potassium, nutrients, and antioxidants, there are dozens of brands of coconut water available. While coconut milk is creamy, rich, and white, coconut water is clear, has no fat, and a slightly nutty flavor. Brands vary in coconut flavor and some brands are packaged raw, which gives them a shorter shelf life, while others are pasteurized and last longer. You can even find whole young coconuts at some stores and Asian markets, look for the green coconuts not the brown ones and open them fresh yourself. Drink coconut water straight from the bottle, or coconut. It tastes great on its own, especially after a workout, but you could also add it into smoothies or even to a cocktail. Pro tip: If you're buying raw coconut water and the liquid looks pink, it is said that the color is due to the presence of extra antioxidants.
Most modern pantries include a jar of coconut oil in addition to extra-virgin olive oil and a neutral oil like safflower. Coconut oil is considered a healthy choice with a high smoke point, meaning food can be cooked at high temperatures in it. But what most people don't realize is that there are two different types of coconut oil. Unrefined coconut oil is minimally processed, retaining the natural tropical flavor or coconut, which add to flavor to baked goods and savory dishes, like this coconut layer cake, these scallops, this Indian inspired lentil stew, or even a Golden Latte. Refined coconut oil is considered a neutral oil because it has been washed free of coconut flavor. Due to processing, refined oils have a higher smoke point than unrefined oils, which lends well to high heat cooking, however it is debatable if refining oil is good for health. Pro tip: Coconut oil varies in consistency depending on if it is warm/room temperature or cold. Warm coconut oil is a pourable liquid, whereas cold oil is semi-firm and scoopable.
Desiccated, Shredded, and Flaked Coconut
Three different preparations of dried coconut meat are available in stores, usually found in the baking section. They vary in texture from finely grated to larger flakes and can be toasted to accentuate nuttiness or eaten as is. Desiccated coconut is the finest texture and driest version of coconut meat. The meat is ground and dried and can be used for baking, such as in this Semolina Coconut Cake. Shredded coconut is the most common, it's what we think of most for baking, but is also great in savory applications, such as this Coconut Crusted Shrimp. Its small, thin strips are available in both sweetened or unsweetened varieties. Try it in some of our favorite baking recipes such as this Coconut Buttermilk Pound Cake, Coconut Crunch Cake, and Coconut Macaron Nests. Coconut flakes are long, wide shreds of coconut which make a beautiful garnish to savory coconut-based dishes like curries and add texture and flavor to baked goods like one of the test kitchen's favorite granolas.
Sweetened Condensed Coconut Milk
A great substitution for sweetened condensed milk, sweetened condensed coconut milk isn't just for those staying away from dairy. The nutty coconut flavor shines through and adds sophisticated flavor in place of more neutral sweetened condensed milk. Try swapping the regular condensed milk in these Chocolate-Coconut bars for coconut condensed milk or try it in our vegan take on Thai iced tea.
Available in health stores, think of coconut butter as the peanut butter of the coconut. The same coconut meat which is used to make the desiccated, shredded, and flaked coconut is instead ground up into a smooth spreadable paste. Spread it on toast, spoon a dollop over a warm potato, or turn it into the ever popular fat balls that the health community loves for a quick energizing snack.
Remember the fat that separated from the liquid in the coconut milk? This fat is called coconut cream. It can be harvested from a separated can of coconut milk, like in this Whipped Coconut Cream recipe, or can be bought as a canned product. It can also be used in dishes that call for coconut milk as a rich substitute, thinned with water or broth.