We know what you’re thinking — “coconut?” you say. “I know what coconut is. Coconuts come from palm trees. And my coworkers are lobbying for a coconut water cooler in the office. And just the other day, someone told me to put it in my coffee.”
But slow down for one quick second — how well do you really know coconut? The Food Lover’s Companion has over 600 words on the subject; and for a book that’s got more than 6,700 things to talk about, that’s quite a lot of attention for our tropical friend. And after years of getting a bad reputation for being a fatty, cholesterol bomb, it’s now being touted as a major health food. What’s that about? Coconut water, coconut oil, coconut milk…there’s a lot to talk about here and so we think it’s time to Get To Know: Coconut.
What it is: Perhaps the mystery surrounding coconuts begins with their name, which is a little misleading. A coconut is not really a nut, but it kind of is. Bare with us for a second, because, to be very technical, a coconut is a drupe, or rather, “a dry fruit, fibrous, one-seeded drupe.” In plain english, drupe comes from the word drupa (which means “overripe olive”), used to describe fruits with a hard stony covering around its seed (think peaches).
Why you should give a damn: The reason we’re hearing so much about it now is because the science on coconut recently had an abrupt about-face. Turns out, instead of being something to avoid at all costs, this drupe’s edible bits are actually pretty good for you—in small quantities. It’s high in saturated fat—specifically, lauric acid: a “medium-chain fatty acid” that, when ingested, becomes a non-toxic antiviral, antimicrobial, and antifungal compound. So basically, it’s a really good fat to have in your body. In small quantities!
Now that we all have permission to eat and drink coconut again, the floodgates have been opened and everyone’s been hitching a ride. But while proponents of coconut products claim dozens of health benefits as fact, it’s best to do your research, approach with caution, and take wild claims with a grain of salt.
Where you can find it: For coconut water, look to supermarkets, grocery stores and convenience stores: these days, it’s hard not to find it. Whole Foods and health food stores (think Vitamin Shoppe) will certainly have coconut oil stocked and coconut milk can usually be found in the baking section of the grocery store.
How it’ll benefit you: Even though the entire drupe can be put to use, most often when we interact with coconut, we’re eating or drinking the meat or juice found inside. When people talk about coconut “water” and coconut “juice” they’re actually referring to the same thing: the liquid found inside the innermost layer. There are a lot of people out there telling you to drink coconut water post-exercise. Indeed, research has shown that coconut water can hydrate as well as sports drinks, but it’s got to have enough sodium, and if you’re already watching your sodium intake, you’ve got to be doing some pretty intense workouts for this to top good ol’ water as your go-to hydrator. Competing in the Olympics? Coconut water is a nice break from Gatorade. Barely making it to the gym? Stick to H2O.
Coconut milk is a different thing entirely. Long story short is, if you soak or emulsify the fresh grated coconut flesh with water and strain it, you get a creamy liquid, the thickness of which depends on your coconut-to-water ratio. This liquid is the basis for most Thai curries, among other things, but it’s also pretty perfect for making delicious dairy-free recipes.
You’ve also been hearing a lot about coconut oil, haven’t you? As a vegetable-derived fat that’s solid at room temperature, it’s the key to making vegan baked goods. But you don’t have to be animal-free to appreciate the oil’s nutty sweetness, nor do you have to be baking with it, or cooking at all. Like olive oil, it helps soften skin, shiny-up your hair and remove makeup. There have also been reports of clearer skin, whiter teeth, and boosted metabolisms; however, there isn’t enough research yet to scientifically prove many of these things. The only way to know if something works for you is to try it yourself—check out this list of unexpected ways to use coconut oil, and proceed with caution (you might be allergic—who knows?).
How it really shines: Health and beauty-related uses aside, the most fun use of coconut is to cook with it, of course. Lucky for you, this site is stocked with countless recipes to try!
For dairy-free treats, use the milk to make these 80’s throwbacks—chocolatey Fudge Pops; or, for some real grown-up flavor, try Coconut-Curry Ice Cream with Honey-Salted Cashews. If you’re itching to test the oil’s baking power, make the ultimate Chocolate Coconut Cream Pie, subbing the crust’s butter with coconut oil to take things to the next level. It’s also the key ingredient to the crust in these Honeyed Pink Strawberry Lemonade Bars. Aida’s birthday bash wouldn’t have been the same without her Coconut Brownie Cheesecake Bars (oil), and our World Cup matches were made sweet no matter whose side won with this recipe for Cocoa-Cinnamon Churro French Toast, aka Brazilian Rabanada (the recipe uses coconut milk, and in a variation, you could fry them in coconut oil, too).
Don’t have such a sweet tooth? Coconut’s great in savory recipes as well, like Avocado Green Curry-Noodles with Cashews (oil), Seared Coconut Vindaloo Swordfish (milk), this Chile Basil Coconut Ceviche (pictured above) and the “Glorified” modification of this Pretty. Easy. recipe for Lemongrass Chili Mussels. Not to mention, making a dressing with coconut water is a no-brainer: if you need some inspiration, try this recipe for Cilantro-Mint Dressing paired with Spinach and Spiced-Walnut Salmon.
Of course, the easiest thing to do would be to make an award-worthy movie night snack like Toasted Coconut Kettle Corn (oil). And if you’re on the fence about Bulletproof coffee but thinking of drinking to your health, shake up a Mint Coconut Batida cocktail to sip while you contemplate everything you’ve learned today.
Looking for more ways to put this drupe to good use? Check out the ideas below:
Chewy Lemon Coconut Cookies with Lemon Icing (oil) (vegan)
Get To Know helps you explore the far reaches of the grocery store and takes you out of your culinary comfort zone. These are some of my favorite pantry ingredients that take food from everyday to adventurous.