Coconut is an iconic tropical food loved the world over. (Seriously, who doesn’t love the stuff? ) It is utilized in too many cuisines to count and works well in everything from sweet to savory.
Coconut is classified as part of the drupe family (which includes apricots, cherries, and more) and is also a fruit, not a nut. I will be honest, the name is 100% a little misleading.
Coconuts grow on the tree of the same name which is part of the palm tree family. The etymology of the name comes from the Spanish word “coco” meaning head or skull and is named so due to the three indentations on the fruit that resemble the features of the face.
These plants grow in the tropics and subtropics and have been used in food for thousands and thousands of years. The flavor of it is mildly sweet and nutty in general but can vary wildly depending on the type of coconut product you are eating.
You have probably seen both of these at grocery stores, on vacation, or at roadside stands. Each has its own purpose.
The young variety has a green exterior and is not completely ripened. Inside, they full of a cloudy liquid known as “water.” The interior flesh is also known as “spoon meat” because you can easily take a spoon to it and scrape it off as a snack.
Mature coconuts are the quintessential thing you think of when you see this fruit in your head. Round, brown, and maybe a little hairy or stringy, this is the mature version. The liquid inside is far less at this stage. The flesh has hardened and turned into meat that can be flaked, shredded, and so forth.
This fruit comes in a wide variety of products and forms. Each is great for a great many dishes and cooking methods.
Coconut Flakes – These are those large beautiful wide strips that are great for adding flavor and texture. They can be used as-is or toasted for a more robust and complex flavor. They make for great garnish and decoration.
Shredded Coconut – This is what you think of when you are thinking about baking. It looks as if it was grated on a box grater and comes in both sweetened and unsweetened varieties.
Desiccated Coconut – The name of this one doesn’t do it justice in my opinion. This type looks like fresh snow and is made by grinding the coconut meat vs. shredded it. It is super fine in texture
Coconut Flour – This wheat alternative is made from the dried meat of the fruit and is a byproduct of milk production. It is a fine powder that makes it suitable for baking but cannot be used as a 1:1 substitute for regular wheat flours.
Coconut Oil – This edible oil is extracted from the meat of the coconut and is high in saturated fat. Its high smoking point makes it great for high-heat cooking popping popcorn on the stove. And because it can be both a solid and a liquid, some recipes use it to cut down the amount of butter.
This will depend greatly on the type of coconut you are eating. It might be a bit of a shock, but that rich crème de coco does not have the nutritional value as the coconut water.
Let’s stick to the flesh for this exercise. The meat of the fruit is rich in fiber, it has good fats that help with cholesterol, and they are packed with vitamins (C, E, B1, and B3 to name a few) as well as minerals (things like iron and selenium).
Believe it or not, but this is one of those flavors that is incredibly versatile. It is like a chameleon in the kitchen for both sweet and savory dishes.
It pairs well with fruits like banana, pineapple, and mango. Herbs like lemongrass, makrut lime leaf, basil, and cilantro all have an affinity for it. Spices like turmeric, black pepper, cumin, and coriander all play nicely with it as do chocolate and caramel. You have so many options!
This is a fun test. Simply tap the outside of the mature coconut and if it sounds hollow, you have yourself a ripe one!