Coconuts are basically a superhero in the culinary world and beyond, ubiquitous in cooking, baking, and beauty products alike.
Yet when you hit the canned goods aisle in the supermarket, things can get a little confusing. Coconut milk. Cream of coconut. Coconut cream. Condensed coconut milk. Coconut oil. How are they all different? What does each taste like? Which ones belong in which recipes?
We’re here to break down the mystery surrounding canned coconut products and help you navigate your next grocery run with ease. But first, a bit of background.
Amazingly, every part of the plant goes to good use!
The water is not only incredibly refreshing on a tropical holiday, but also packed with important electrolytes and nutrients for extra-nourishing hydration. Meanwhile, the fibrous husk can be used in a variety of household products, like doormats, brushes, and twine. Creative upcyclers have even turned whole or half coconut shells into hanging planters!
Perhaps the most versatile component, however, is the meat. Stripped fresh, it’s used in fruit salads, as part of smoothies, or simply spooned straight from the coconut into a hungry snacker’s mouth. Dried, it makes for a tasty, chip-like treat, baking ingredient, or dessert topping. And that’s just scratching the surface; The ultimate list of coconut products could practically fill a whole novel.
Believe it or not, yes! While they’re all coconut-based, each ingredient has a unique texture, flavor profile, and use in the kitchen. Let’s explore:
Coconut milk: Often confused with coconut water, this product has nothing to do with the clear liquid found inside that hard, hairy shell–but rather the flesh. To make coconut milk, a mature coconut is scraped free of its white, tender meat. The scrapings are grated, mixed with hot water, and then pressed through a cheesecloth in a process similar to the creation of other nut milks.
In the supermarket, you’ll usually find full-fat canned versions more akin to whole milk, or you can buy a thinner, lower-fat version in a carton.
Coconut milk is a tasty vegan alternative utilized in countless dishes. Lighter in flavor than other ingredients on this list, it can be swapped in pretty much anywhere you’d traditionally use cow’s milk. Pour it into your morning coffee or bowl of cereal; Add it to a healthy smoothie for a smooth kick of sweetness; Turn it into homemade coconut yogurt or ice cream. The possibilities are endless–get creative!
Condensed coconut milk: Like coconut milk, condensed coconut milk is best used as a vegan alternative to its dairy counterpart. It’s what makes many vegan desserts–including cheesecake, flan, and pudding–so decadent and delicious.
Coconut cream: This product comes about in much the same way as coconut milk, with just a few extra steps added on. The milk is chilled overnight, causing the fat to separate and accrue at the top of the jar. The next day, all you have to do is skim off this layer and whisk it until it takes on a creamy consistency.
Thick, dense, and with a richer flavor than coconut milk, coconut cream works fabulously in curries and soups, or as an alternative to heavy cream in vegan desserts. Now that’s an ingredient you want in your pantry!
Cream of coconut: Despite their similar names, this is actually a totally different product from the one above. While coconut cream is unsweetened, cream of coconut is more like a thick, sugary syrup. In supermarkets, you can spot the most popular brand in a squeeze bottle, although there are canned varieties as well. The most common uses for cream of coconut are in tropical cocktails, like the iconic Piña Colada or Blue Hawaiian.
Coconut oil: You may have heard about coconut oil as a miracle worker for skin or hair, but it makes an excellent kitchen aid, too! In cooking as well as baking, the healthy fats make it a popular alternative to vegetable oils or butter. As a bonus, it infuses whatever you’re making with a slight tropical flavor and mild sweetness.
With this new knowledge on hand, you’ll be able to tackle so many incredible coconut-based recipes like an absolute pro. Here are a few to get you started!
Coquito, in case you haven’t been introduced, is a Puerto Rican drink popular around the holidays. Utilizing warm spices and a thick, creamy base, it’s quite similar to eggnog–but with a tropical twist. In this dessert styling, we turn those flavors into batter and top them off with a tantalizing coconut rum frosting. Cheers!
Smooth, silky, and pudding-like in its consistency, flan traces its history all the way back to ancient Rome. Thanks to innovative twists, like the sweet pops of coconut flavor in this iteration, it’s still just as popular today!
Tres leches, or “three milk” cake, calls for exactly what the name suggests. Decadent sponge cake is soaked through thrice, and in this version…with coconut milk! Plus, a sprinkle of toasted coconut on top adds an extra tropical flair.
Everyone’s favorite drink–in pie form? How can you resist? This Piña Colada-inspired dessert is as stunning as it is scrumptious, bringing together a crunchy Maria cookie crust, pineapple custard, and coconut cream cheese. With swirls of whipped cream and slices of fresh fruit to decorate, the end result belongs on the front cover of a cookbook!
Just looking at this picture, you can practically taste the coconut already. This indulgent layer cake is loaded with cream of coconut, coconut milk, shredded coconut, and coconut extract for a full-on flavor explosion in every bite!