15 Irresistible Sweet and Savory Coconut Recipes
Calling all coconut lovers! From luscious coconut cake to bright-tasting coconut chicken curry, these recipes have your name on them.
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Above: Ultimate Coconut Cake; recipe and photo by Ashley Strickland Freeman
What comes to mind when you think of coconut? For me (just for starters) it’s a fruity tropical cocktail infused with creamy coconut flavor; the sweet Almond Joy candy bar I sneak from my son’s trick-or-treat basket; a mile-high wedge of silky coconut cream pie; and crispy coconut shrimp with a sweet dipping sauce. I absolutely love coconut — if there’s coconut cake or coconut curry on a restaurant menu, sign me up. If you’re like me, well, read on, because you’re in for a treat.
I’ve long been a coconut nut and became even more of one thanks to my husband. His mom has a house on Kauai in Hawaii where we’ve traveled many times over the years and feasted on pineapple, macadamia nuts, and all things coconut.
This past summer our family was lucky enough to spend 6 weeks on the island, and ever since I’ve been craving all those dishes with delicious coconut flavor. Coconut is such a versatile ingredient, fantastic in both sweet and savory dishes. With that in mind, I’m sharing three of my favorite coconut recipes inspired by our trip, plus a round-up of 12 more amazing coconut recipes from the Yummly vault — because if you’re like me, you can’t get too much coconut.
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10 FAQs about coconut
Here are some questions I often get about coconut and how to cook with it.
1. How do you store a fresh coconut? And how long does fresh coconut last?
A fresh, unopened coconut can be stored at room temperature for a really long time — upwards of 3 to 4 months. That said, if you opt to buy a fresh coconut and go to the trouble of opening it (which is very impressive, by the way), there’s no way you’ll want to toss any leftovers. You can store a freshly cut or grated coconut in the refrigerator for about 4 days. Or freeze grated fresh coconut in an airtight container up to 6 months.
2. How long does packaged coconut last?
Shredded coconut flakes, both sweetened and unsweetened, if unopened in the package, will last 4 to 6 months at room temperature. To help shredded coconut last longer once you’ve opened it, transfer the coconut to an airtight container and store in the refrigerator up to 6 months.
3. How do you know when coconut is bad?
It’s pretty easy to determine if a fresh coconut has spoiled — the “eyes,” or the three dots on the outside, could have mold on them or could be leaking. If the coconut smells like alcohol or smells musty, that’s also a sign that it’s gone bad. Shredded coconut is less likely to spoil. While you won’t get sick from it, shredded coconut can dry out and discolor over time.
4. Can you freeze coconut?
Yes! It’s easy to freeze fresh or shredded coconut. If using a fresh coconut, remove the husk, drain the coconut water (and save it for a refreshing drink), and cut the coconut meat into chunks. Transfer the coconut to zip-top freezer bags, seal, and freeze for up to 6 months. To freeze coconut flakes, lay the package flat in the freezer and also freeze for up to 6 months.
5. What does coconut pair well with?
The great thing about coconut is that it can be used in both savory and sweet applications. Spicy curry paste is a perfect match for coconut. Coconut milk, in particular, adds a hint of sweetness and creaminess to Thai coconut curry. Lime juice and cilantro are also often used in coconut dishes because the flavors blend so well. You may have heard the saying “what grows together, goes together.” This is especially true for coconut and tropical fruits like pineapple, mango, and passion fruit. Finally, if you’re a fan of Almond Joy and Mounds candy bars, then you know that chocolate and coconut are a winning combo.
6. What are some healthy ways to eat coconut?
Unsweetened coconut flakes, coconut milk, and coconut water are quite healthy and can be great, especially in gluten-free and dairy-free dishes. Coconut milk is delicious when used to cook veggies, especially sweet potatoes. Coconut oil is terrific for higher-heat cooking.
7. What is the difference between desiccated and shredded coconut?
Desiccated coconut is finely ground coconut. Shredded coconut is longer and larger in size, and the coconut flakes retain more moisture than their finer-ground counterparts.
8. Is coconut cream the same as cream of coconut?
No! Coconut cream is an unsweetened product and cream of coconut is sweetened. Coconut cream is super thick and is made from coconut milk. Cream of coconut is thin, almost syrupy, and is more closely related to sweetened condensed milk; it’s the perfect ingredient for cocktails like my Piña Coladas.
9. Is coconut milk dairy-free?
Good news. Coconut milk is dairy-free, so if you’re lactose intolerant or following a vegan diet, then this is a great option for you.
10. What is the nutritional value of coconut?
Coconuts are highly nutritious, containing calories, of course, which we need for energy, as well as a small amount of protein, and a high amount of manganese, a mineral that’s key for both bone health and a healthy metabolism. Coconuts also contain antioxidants, and it’s believed that coconut oil has antibacterial properties. So coconut is not only delicious; it’s also nutritious.
How to make 3 favorite coconut recipes
Inspired by my recent travels, here are three recipes I created for some of my favorite ways to use coconut. There’s no need to crack open a fresh coconut for these recipes; they feature easy-to-find coconut milk, cream of coconut, shredded coconut, and coconut extract for plenty of coconut flavor.
Coconut-crusted chicken tenders
My husband and I love coconut shrimp, but our son…not so much. He does, however, love chicken fingers with honey mustard. This recipe satisfies everyone’s taste buds.
First I create a dredging station with cornstarch, beaten eggs, and coconut flakes mixed with panko breadcrumbs. If you’re looking for a gluten-free version of this recipe, you can use gluten-free panko or leave it out entirely (just be sure to increase the amount of coconut flakes).
After I dredge all the chicken, I fry it in hot oil. Maintaining an even temperature around 325°F is key so that the chicken gets crispy and browns evenly. A quick sauce of store-bought pineapple preserves, Dijon mustard, curry powder, and mayonnaise creates an easy tropical dipping sauce that my family gobbles up. To round out the meal, I serve this with steamed rice and veggies like broccoli or green beans.
This tropical cocktail isn’t necessarily inspired by my trip to Hawaii (it’s originally from Puerto Rico), but I’ve always loved the drink, and it does contain a very Hawaiian ingredient in addition to the coconut: pineapple.
Into the blender go all the ingredients, and you process them until the creamy coconut mixture is smooth — what could be easier? In addition to cream of coconut, pineapple juice, pineapple chunks, and two kinds of rum, I like to add a bit of lime juice for a tangy flavor. I find it balances out the sweetness from cream of coconut and pineapple. After pouring the frozen sweet coconut concoction into glasses, I garnish them with a pineapple wedge, cherry, and festive umbrella. The umbrella is optional, but it makes me feel like I’m sitting under a palm tree at the beach.
The ultimate coconut cake
I adore coconut cake, and the best version I’ve ever had is from the Kalaheo Café, one of our favorite restaurants on Kauai. This coconut cake is my recreation of that cake, with a few shortcuts thrown in.
What’s different about the restaurant's layer cake compared to most coconut cake recipes I’ve seen is the creamy coconut custard spread between the layers. I’m pretty sure theirs has egg yolk in it, but to keep things easy in this recipe, I created a cornstarch coconut pudding with coconut milk and shredded coconut. It has all the rich coconut flavor that I love about the layer cake from Kalaheo Café, but it's more forgiving. (No tempering of egg yolks is required.)
After baking and cooling my cake layers, I pipe a little bit of creamy coconut buttercream frosting around the edges. This acts as a “moat” to keep that coconut pudding filling from oozing out.
I do this for two of the layers, working one layer at a time. After I place the final layer on top, I spread the top and sides with the remaining coconut buttercream. Then I coat the whole cake with more sweetened coconut flakes and garnish with edible flowers. The latter step is not necessary, but since I’m feeling nostalgic about Hawaii, I thought decorating with tropical flowers would be fun.
I love the snowy white look of the shredded coconut but have also used toasted coconut before, too. Feel free to go with either.
6 more savory coconut recipes
You can find coconut inspired recipes in cuisines around the world, especially in Caribbean, Thai, and Indian cuisines. Don’t miss these main dishes and side dishes, which come from multiple places where coconut flavor is king.
Gorgeous orange carrots and sweet potatoes give this soup its gorgeous glow. Here, green curry paste is used along with curry powder, cilantro, cashews, lime juice, and coconut milk. It’s a comforting coconut soup to enjoy any time of year.
I’m a super fan of sheet pan dishes, so when I discovered this recipe for coconut shrimp that can be made in the oven, I knew it would be a winner. Shrimp are coated in sweet coconut flakes with a little beaten egg white and bake up to a crispy golden-brown. Give ‘em a dunk in store-bought sweet Thai chili sauce, and you’ve got a crowd-pleasing main dish.
I’ve always loved coconut rice — it’s the perfect side dish to serve with spicy coconut curry, grilled chicken or fish with tropical fruit salsa, and vegetarian stews. This version gets an extra spot of sweet coconut flavor with a sprinkling of toasted coconut on top.
This is a great recipe for those following a gluten-free or Paleo diet. The flavors of coconut milk, Thai red curry paste, peanut butter, fish sauce, and lime juice come together for an explosion of deliciousness all in one bowl.
I love the bright flavors of coconut, curry powder, and fresh cilantro in this Caribbean-inspired dish. It’s especially delicious served over coconut rice for even more of a coconut punch.
This recipe may be a mouthful to say, but it’s definitely worth the effort once you take a bite. Short ribs are seasoned with a homemade garam masala blend. (To save time, you can find garam masala in the spice aisle.) A braise in coconut milk and broth yields melt-in-your-mouth beef.
6 more sweet coconut recipes
Don’t worry: I didn’t forget about dessert. These sweet coconut recipes are the perfect ending to any meal.
Talk about coconut flavor! This creamy coconut ice cream brings together unsweetened coconut milk, coconut extract, coconut flakes, and toasted coconut.
When it comes to easy recipes that feature coconut, this is it. A prepared graham cracker crust is the base for a fluffy and creamy coconut filling made with boxes of coconut pudding, shredded coconut, and whipped topping like Cool Whip. Add a final sprinkle of toasted coconut on top, and you’ve got the easiest dessert ever.
I grew up enjoying these sweet and chewy coconut bars. The seven layers are graham crackers, two kinds of chocolate chips, butterscotch chips, pecans, sweetened condensed milk, and of course, shredded coconut. Sometimes I like to switch out one of the types of chocolate chips with M&Ms.
This is the ultimate coconut cookie if you like Almond Joys. The coconut chocolate combo is a natural match, and pecans add a nutty flavor and crispy texture to the chewy macaroons.
Similar in texture to banana bread, this quick bread is super simple to make. Sweet coconut flakes are paired with cinnamon and vanilla for a delicious coconut bread that can be enjoyed for breakfast or dessert.
Coconut cream is just so perfect for making cocktails, I had to include another boozy drink in addition to the Piña Coladas above. This drink adds a little extra oomph to a lime juice and mint mojito with both coconut cream and sweetened flaked coconut.
What's your favorite fruity ingredient?
Now that you've explored coconut, how about a taste of pineapple, banana, or another sweet treat?