Coconuts can be made into many different food and beverage products, but with similar names, differentiating between them can be difficult. Let's take a closer look at a few common coconut products, how they're made, and their culinary uses.
Coconut cream is made by simmering shredded coconut meat in water and then straining out the coconut solids. The resulting liquid is left to separate and the thick, semi-solid coconut cream is scraped off of the top.
Coconut cream can be purchases sweetened or unsweetened and is often used in desserts and beverages. Coconut cream has a high fat content, most of which is saturated. Coconut cream is essentially the same as coconut milk, but with a lower water content.
Coconut milk is made with the same method as coconut cream. Shredded coconut is simmered with water and then the solid portions are strained out, usually with cheesecloth. Coconut milk comes in two varieties, thick and thin. As the simmered liquid sits, the thick coconut milk will rise to the top and the thin coconut milk, which has a more translucent appearance, remains at the bottom. Most coconut milk sold commercially in cans will naturally separate in this manner during storage and transportation. The two phases can easily be mixed back together by stirring or shaking the can.
Coconut milk has an average fat content of 17%, but will vary from brand to brand. Coconut milk is a common ingredient in Asian and Indian cuisine. It can be used to make soups, sauces, curries, and beverages. It is often paired with spicy ingredients because the high fat, creamy texture has a cooling affect on the palate.
A second type of coconut milk has emerged on the market as consumers are increasingly looking for dairy alternatives. This type of coconut milk has a much lower fat content than traditional canned coconut milk and is often sold in large cartons. This type of coconut milk is used like dairy milk and poured over cereal, into coffee, or drank straight as a beverage. Most recipes calling for "coconut milk" refer to the canned variety and not the dairy milk alternative.
Coconut water is quite different from coconut milk and coconut cream. This clear fluid can be found in the center of young coconuts and does not contain any of the fat derived from the coconut flesh. Coconut water is high in potassium and other nutrients and is often consumed as for its extremely hydrating qualities.
In tropical regions coconut water is often sold in the street, straight from the coconut itself. In recent years, commercial bottling and sale of coconut water has exploded. Although specific health claims have yet to be proven, consumers enjoy coconut water for its light flavor, low calorie content, and natural nutrients.