5 Smart Ways with Coconut

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As I observed recently, the Natural Products Expo West in March was filled with booths showcasing coconut in all its forms–everything from coconut water and coconut oil to coconut sugar and coconut ice cream. No question, this tropical fruit is enjoying its day in the culinary sun.
It also has some distinct nutritional advantages. “Coconut is a great antibiotic,” says Nourish Network advisor Rebecca Katz in her book The Cancer-Fighting Kitchen (Celestial Arts). “Half of its saturated fat content comes from lauric acid, which the body converts into monlaurin, a powerful antibacterial and antiviral compound. Monolaurin is the absolute enemy of disease-causing germs, and may play a role in attacking cancer as well.”

Here are 5 forms of coconut, and how to use them:

Coconut Oil

Extracted from mature coconuts, coconut oil has a high smoke point so it can be used for high-temperature cooking. Choose unrefined coconut oil, which retains more of the beneficial fats than refined and has a rich, nutty flavor with hints of vanilla.

Use it: for sauteing, baking or anywhere you’d like to add a coconut-y note–like in our Creamy Millet with Blueberry Compote.

Canned Coconut Milk

You’ve probably used thick, creamy canned coconut milk to add rich texture to curries, like our Spring Vegetable Curry or Curried Mussels. It’s made from pressing fresh ripe coconut meat. Light coconut milk has about 60% fewer calories than the regular variety, and it’s still pretty rich.

Use it: In addition to curries, try coconut milk in baked goods, pancakes or anywhere you’d like to add a rich, nutty, tropical note. It’s also great for thickening sauces. Refrigerate leftover opened canned coconut milk for up to 3 days.

I also really like this tip from the Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Companion: Don’t shake the can before opening. Instead, skim some of the thick cream that has risen to the top to use in place of oil to make a curry paste. Then stir the rest of the oil back into the milk to use in the sauce.

Coconut Milk Beverage

This is a relative newcomer on the market, and you’ll find it in the refrigerated section of many health-food stores with other nondairy milks like soy or almond milk. It’s made with regular coconut milk but has a thinner consistency so you can drink it by the glass. It has a subtle coconut flavor. It has 50 calories per cup, including 25% of your saturated fat needs for the day.

Use it: Drink it like milk, pour it over cereal, use in baked goods, puddings and the like.

Coconut Water

If you’re the athletic type, you’ll want to take a close look at coconut water as a natural alternative to sports drinks. It’s made from young, green coconuts (as opposed to the mature brown fruit used to make coconut milk). Coconut water has about one-third fewer calories than a sports drink yet it’s higher in potassium, magnesium, calcium and iron–all electrolytes that are key for hydration. It’s also a good choice for kids and pregnant or lactating women.

Use it: Opt for unsweetened coconut water, which you also can use in cooking as well as for sipping.

Coconut Sugar

Also known as palm sugar, coconut sugar is made from the sap of the coconut tree’s unopened flower bud stalks. Its texture is a bit sandier than granulated sugar with a subtle caramel-y flavor similar to brown sugar (but it doesn’t have brown sugar’s moistness or “pack”). You can find it in health food stores (where it’s sold in packages and, sometimes, the bulk bins) or in Asian and Latin markets. Double-check the label to be sure you’re picking up 100% coconut sugar–some variations from Asia are mixed with cane sugar.

Coconut sugar has a much lower glycemic index than granulated (or brown) sugar, which means it produces smaller fluctuations in blood sugar levels. It also has about one-third fewer calories per teaspoon.

Use it: Try it in place of either granulated or brown sugar in sweet and savory recipes.

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Chocolate Amaranth Pudding

As we’ve noted before, amaranth has a gelatinous quality that makes it ideal for pudding. If you’re fan of rice pudding or tapioca, you’ll probably like this, too. Our version is spiced with a little ancho chile powder and ground cinnamon, and sweetened with coconut sugar. You can cook the amaranth in unsweetened coconut milk beverage found in the refrigerated section of health food stores (rather than the thicker, richer canned coconut milk you’d use in our Spring Vegetable Curry), or use almond milk if you prefer less pronounced coconut flavor.

Chocolate Amaranth Pudding


Prep Time: 5 minutes

Cook Time: 25 minutes

Yield: Serves 8

Chocolate Amaranth Pudding


  1. 3 cups unsweetened coconut OR almond milk
  2. 1 cup amaranth
  3. 1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  4. 1/4 teaspoon ancho chile powder
  5. 1/8 teaspoon salt
  6. 1/2 cup coconut sugar, divided
  7. 2 large eggs
  8. 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  9. 3 ounces dark chocolate, chopped
  10. Chopped walnuts, for garnish (optional)


Whisk together first 5 ingredients and 1/4 cup coconut sugar in a medium saucepan. Bring to a simmer over medium heat. Cover, and cook 25-30 minutes or until the amaranth is tender.

Whisk together the remaining 1/4 cup coconut sugar and eggs. Ladle about 1/2 cup of the hot amaranth mixture into the egg mixture, whisking constantly. Slowly whisk egg mixture into amaranth mixture in the pan. Cook 1 minute or until thickened. Remove from heat and stir in the vanilla. Gradually add the chocolate, stirring until it melts.

Fill a large bowl with ice water. Carefully set the pan into the ice bath and let the pudding cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally to prevent a skin from forming. Refrigerate at least 1 hour (pudding will continue to thicken as it chills). Serve garnished with chopped walnuts, if you like.


Prep Time: 5 minutes (plus 1 hour chilling time)

Cook Time: 25-30 minutes


  • http://eatingisforfood.blogspot.com/ Lydia

    I bought a jar of unrefined coconut oil for the first time recently after reading so much about it lately. I haven’t tried it as a butter/oil replacement for baking with yet, but I did use it in a couple of uncooked dishes like frosting and granola bars. What I was disappointed with was the fact that the final product tasted pretty strongly of coconut, which wouldn’t have been bad if I had been looking for that, but I wasn’t. I’m curious if it is maybe just the brand I have or if all coconut oil has an overpowering coconut aroma?

  • http://ingredientsinc.net Alison Lewis

    Great post. I wrote about coconut water recently too. I really want to try Coconut Sugar

  • http://nourishnetwork.com/members/alisoneats/ Alison Ashton

    Yep, I’m a big fan of coconut sugar now, Alison!

    Lydia, unrefined coconut oil definitely has a distinct coconut flavor, which is likely to come through in baked dishes, albeit more subtly than in uncooked applications.

    Earth Balance is coming out with a coconut spread soon (early summer, I think). I’ve sampled that, used in cookies, and it has a much more subtle coconut flavor.