There's a lovely bunch of coconut products out there these days, but what are you supposed to do with the oil, the water, the cream, two types of milk and that bag of flaky stuff at the back of the cupboard?

Image: Coconuts explained: milk, oil, water and more

Emily Blake Photography / Via

Coconuts. They’re one of the food world’s favourite wonder ingredients – managing at once to be sweet and savoury, creamy and fruity. But they’re also a tricky nut to crack, and not just in the literal sense. 

Once you get inside, there’s a whole world of potential deliciousness and confusion. Is the coconut oil you cook with the same as the coconut oil you can rub on your skin? What’s the difference between the coconut milk you use in a curry, and the coconut milk that you put in your tea? Does desiccated coconut still have a place in the modern world? Should you make a mermaid bra with the remains? Well should you?


Step this way, as we demystify nature’s biggest multi-tasker …



Right, what’s coconut water?

If you believe the marketing hype, then coconut water is basically better for us than water, oxygen and kale combined. It's the clear liquid that you find inside young, green coconuts – it's 100% natural and not produced from a concentrate. Some say it's like sticking a straw in a coconut. 


Gym luvvies drink it after exercising and it's popular with health-conscious foodies on the alkaline diet. We also really like it as an alternative to milk in oh-so-on-trend overnight oats



So what’s coconut milk?

Coconut milk in a bowl

Phu Thinh Co / CC BY-SA 2.0 / adapted / Flickr: phuthinhco

Not to be confused with coconut water, this is the thick, creamy white stuff that’s made from pulped coconut flesh. It can be thinner or thicker depending on how long it's strained for, with the thinner coconut milk being the type you’re most likely to buy in a can and add to a curry. Try it in this prawn and coconut soup, or coconut bananas with maple syrup.


A creamy staple in an endless list of Asian and Caribbean dishes, coconut milk is also starting to crop up more and more in healthy-eating and vegan recipes as an alternative to dairy.


But hang on – what’s this other coconut milk in my fridge?

Coconut milk in a glass

Grace Cat / CC BY-SA 2.0 / adapted / Flickr: g_cat26

Ah, do you mean coconut 'delicious dairy-free alternative to milk'? That’s the new kid on the block. Made from diluted coconut milk enriched with extra calcium and vitamins, it’s a milk alternative that’s being touted as the ultimate answer for vegans, lactose-intolerants, those with nut allergies and those who just really hate the way soy milk curdles your coffee.


Coconut 'milks' like Koko Dairy Free have roughly the same fat content as semi-skimmed milk, so it’s not as much of a treat as normal coconut milk. It doesn’t taste quite as amazing either, obv.



How about this hard block of creamed coconut in my cupboard?

You have been buying a lot of coconut, haven’t you? OK, that’s made from fresh creamed coconut (100% coconut in most cases), which has been dehydrated for you to enjoy at a later date. Crumble off chunks to add to a curry, or dilute it with water to give the consistency of coconut milk.


And how about coconut yogurt?

The coconut revolution has also brought with it the advent of coconut yogurts like COYO – which is dairy-free yoghurt made from pure coconut milk, rather than normal yogurt flavoured with coconut. You might want to write that down.


OK, talk to me about coconut oil. What does it do?

What doesn't it do?


That’s not an answer

Sorry. But coconut oil is more or less the Meryl Streep of the modern kitchen – there is apparently no end to its talents. And when we say kitchen, we also mean bathroom, because one of the things coconut oil is the best at is turning your tough, lizardy scales to baby-soft skin in a few swift slicks. You can use it as a make-up remover, a moisturiser, a body lotion, a lip balm and even as a hair conditioner, with no worry about parabens, sulphates or any of the other dodgies that might be found in modern cosmetics.

Oh the wonders of coconut oil – it makes Hemsley & Hemsley's Mint Choc Pavé taste deeelish

Back at the hob, coconut oil can be subbed in for your usual olive or vegetable oil for frying and roasting (the Hemsley sisters claim it can make sprouts taste as good as Maltesers), and it also works a treat to bring dairy-free richness to cakes, cookies and pastry instead of butter. Devotees also use it in smoothies and raw treats.


But can I use one tub for both?

Mrs Doubtfire gif

Mrs Doubtfire / 20th Century Fox /

Not all coconut oils are created equal, or at least that’s what the manufacturers of the posh ones would have you believe.


Refined coconut oil tends to be flavourless and odourless, which makes it better for using in dishes where you don’t necessarily want a faint tang of piña colada. But as with olive oils there are flavour benefits in using less refined virgin oils, which range from a mild coconutty scent and flavour to a strong one, depending on how much heat the oil has been exposed to.


You can use either kind on your skin, but for beautifying purposes you’ll probably want to choose a raw, unrefined coconut oil. And using just the one tub is fine … but if you’re a messy cook, beware. You don’t rub chilli on your face and forget about it in a hurry.


And finally – what about this bag of desiccated coconut?


jamieanne / CC BY-SA 2.0 / adapted / Flickr: jamieanne

If you’ve had it in there since 1993, throw it away. But if it’s still in date, this most retro of ingredients can be used in plenty of non-naff ways to tart up your recipes.


Pop it in these corn fritters with prawn, coconut, peanut and chilli sambal, toast it along with your homemade granola, or earn the full quota of hipster points by sprinkling it on Hemsley + Hemsley’s beetroot cinnamon smoothie