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Coconut 101

Everything you need to know about cooking with coconuts, including different kinds of coconut and the difference between coconut oil/cream/milk.

Picture of halved coconut shells on white background

This week is going to be spec-freaking-tacular, y’all, because we’re diving into the tropical world of coconuts! And I kind of already want to turn this coconut-two-weeks into a coconut-month, but I fear the amount of coconut products in our house (i.e. A LOT) will turn the tulip-man straight coconutty, so for his sanity, I will refrain. So let’s just all learn a bit about coconuts today, before we jump into some real tasty recipes later this week!

What are coconuts?

Just like our past two spotlight ingredients, almonds and plums, coconuts are actually a fruit called a drupe. Drupes have a single seed and a fruity exterior. The woody coconut you may find at the grocery has had it’s fruity parts removed and is often sold just as the seed.

Picture of different kinds of coconuts on white background

Varieties of coconuts

Okay, we’re going to break this into two parts.

Variations of coconuts you may buy at the store:

  • Young Coconuts: These have either a green shell of a white husk. They contain a lot of water and their meat is really tender.
  • Mature Coconuts: These are the classic brown, hairy-looking coconuts. They have less water and more firm meat, but contain a lot more calories and nutrients than young coconuts.

Variations of coconut products used in cooking:

  • Water: This is the water as it comes straight from the coconut, refreshing with a hint of coconut.
  • Canned milk: Coconut milk, on the other hand, is made by pressing the coconut meat and mixing it with a bit of coconut water. Aim to buy cans with just coconut and water as ingredients, avoiding stabilizers like Guar gum.
  • Cream: Made from pressing the coconut meat. This is really thick and usually comes in a glass jar or plastic pouch. You can also get it in a sitch by refrigerating a can of good quality coconut milk overnight then scooping off the solid layer that forms on top.
  • Milk in a carton: This is more of a beverage than a cooking ingredient. It is watered down and often contains added stabilizers, so I’d really just suggest this for making smoothies and drinking.
  • Oil: Made from pressing dehydrated grated coconut meat. This is really high in saturated fat (which contributes to your “bad cholesterol” levels) so use it sparingly for adding a nice coconut flavor to dishes.
  • Shaved or shredded: This is just the meat, shaved or shredded into small pieces and dried. These often come either sweetened or unsweetened (I usually add unsweetened so that I can also use it in savory dishes as well)
  • Flour: The fat is removed from the meat, then the meat is dried and ground up into flour. Super tasty for paleo and gluten-free recipes!
Coconut cream vs coconut oil

How to open a coconut

If you have a hammer, this is a piece of cake (if you don’t you’ll look like me, the new girl in our apartment complex, outside in her pajamas throwing a coconut against the ground praying that it will just open for the love of Pete).

But I digress, get a hammer. Find the three spots on top of the coconut, let’s call these the North Pole. Over a bowl, use your hammer to firmly tap around the equator of your coconut until you hear a satisfying “crack”. Peel open your coconut, letting the water fall into the bowl, and enjoy!

Coconut flavor combos

My first stop when scheming up recipes is always my trusty Vegetarian Flavor Bible, where they list which ingredients go well with what. The following are a few ingredients that go really well with coconut. You can use these as a starting point for your own cooking experimentation!

  • Chocolate
  • Mangoes
  • Lemon and lime
  • Sweet potatoes
  • Rice
  • Carrots
Picture of halved coconut shells on white background

Coconut nutrition information

per 1 cup (80 g) raw, shredded coconut

  • Calories: 282
  • Carbohydrates: 12 g
  • Fiber: 7 g, 29% of Daily Value (DV)
  • Protein: 3 g
  • Fat: 27 g
  • 60% DV of Manganese: A trace element that plays a role in healthy brain and nervous system function.
  • 11% DV of Iron: A major component of hemoglobin, the proteins that make up red blood cells and carry oxygen around the body. This is a non-heme source, meaning it does not come from an animal. It is not absorbed as well as heme iron.
  • 119% DV of Saturated Fat: These are the “bad fats” that contribute to high blood cholesterol levels and to higher chance of heart disease. This high amount of saturated fat means you should use coconut oil sparingly (just when you want the flavor), rather than all the time. Try to go with oils high in unsaturated fats, like safflower or canola oil.

P.S. Fun Fact: In parts of Southeast Asia, they train monkeys to climb up and pick the coconuts. That’s all. I thought you should know.

Hi, I’m Sarah!

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  1. Laura Michel says:

    What a wonderful introduction to coconuts. Remember that virgin coconut oil is best. Since it is minimally processed, this kind of oil retains a greater number of nutrients.

    1. Sarah says:

      Thanks so much for the tip, Laura!