Cracking the Coconut Code

We love the tropical flavor and richness coconut adds to a dish, but supermarkets stock multiple similarly named coconut products, making it difficult to know which to buy.

Coconut Cream

Coconut cream is a thick, rich cream extracted from the grated meat of mature coconuts. It’s about 22 percent fat; heavy coconut cream is 30 percent fat. (Don’t confuse it with cream of coconut, a sugary ingredient used in cocktails.) Coconut cream’s consistency and flavor make it ideal for desserts, such as our freeform fruit tart. Mix ¼ cup coconut cream with 3 tablespoons brown sugar, 2 tea­spoons citrus zest and ¼ teaspoon salt. Spoon the mixture onto a thawed sheet of puff pastry, then top with thinly sliced fruit (we like mango). Bake at 425°F for 20 minutes, or until the pastry is golden.

Coconut Milk

Coconut milk is similar to coconut cream but not quite as thick (full-fat coconut milk is about 17 percent fat). It has a more liquid consistency. Canned coconut milk must be shaken and/or stirred before use; the fat solidifies at the top of the can. Quality varies by brand, so when coconut milk is a star ingredient—as in our Thai-Style Coconut and Chicken Soup —we prefer to make our own, for fresher, purer flavor and control of the final consistency. In a blender, combine 2½ cups unsweetened shredded coconut and 3 cups warm water. Let stand for 5 minutes. Blend on high until creamy, then strain; discard the solids. This produces a thinner coconut milk than canned that is best for braises, stews and soups. For a consistency closer to canned—best for dishes that rely on coconut milk for its creaminess, such as certain curries—instead use 1 cup unsweetened shredded coconut and 1½ cups warm water. After straining, stir in a 13½- to 15½-ounce can coconut cream.

Coconut Water

Coconut water is the clear liquid harvested from young, green coconuts. Typically sold as a beverage in shelf-stable cartons, it’s mild and slightly sweet, with a subtle savory salinity. We often use it in place of some or all of the water when cooking rice, as in our recipe for Malaysian Coconut Rice.