Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Cooking With Coconut

After reading about how good coconut is for me, I wanted to experiment with it in cooking.  Many healthy recipe bloggers recommend substituting coconut oil for olive or other cooking oil, coconut milk for dairy milk or cream, and coconut flour for flours made of grain.  Here are a few things I made, and how they turned out.

Sautéing in coconut oil
I switched to coconut oil for sautéing as soon as I read how good it is for my brain.  (My brain needs all the help it can get!)  I like the flavor it adds to my morning egg scrambles and sausage hash, and when I sautéed pork tenderloin in it on my night to cook, Stan commented how good it was.  I think he’s using it now, too.

Coconut Milk
Coconut milk is a bit confusing, as there are two kinds that are quite different.  Most of the recipes specify they mean the thick full-fat coconut milk available in cans (look for BPA-free cans), not the thinned out coconut milk in boxes for drinking.  I’ve already found I don’t use up a box of almond milk fast enough, so I haven’t tried the boxed coconut milk.  Last weekend my sister-in-law, Jennifer, introduced me to coconut milk in a milk carton, which I hadn't tried before.  It was creamy and sounds healthier and fresher than canned or boxed, so I'll see if I can find it in quart size and try it.

I have noticed some brands of the canned coconut milk include thickener such as guar gum in the ingredients, and that makes a more smooth product than the kinds with only coconut and water.  In many recipes it doesn't matter, but if you want a really smooth consistency and creamy look, the gum seems to help.  I asked Google whether guar gum is safe to eat and here's some reassurance from Chris Kresser on Let's Take Back Your Health.  However, the only brand I've found so far that specifies BPA-free cans does not have the gum, so I mostly go with the more grainy texture.

 Coconut Flour
 I notice many recipes use almond flour as a base, and include a few tablespoons of coconut flour as well.  I'm not sure what the intent is, but it does seem to add a nice flavor, and perhaps a bit more cakey texture than almond meal alone.  Here is an article about the differences and pros and cons of coconut flour vs. almond flour.

Shredded Coconut
Be sure to get the unsweetened kind.  Our local QFC only has packages of sweetened coconut, but a larger QFC, Whole Foods and our PCC Market all have both unsweetened shredded and flaked coconut in the bulk foods department. 

Coconut Aminos
Some paleo cooks use coconut aminos in place of soy sauce in order to avoid soy.  It is a seasoning sauce made from the sap from a coconut tree, salted and aged.  I saw it for sale at our PCC Market, but I didn't buy it, knowing I had a perfectly good bottle of gluten-free soy sauce at home.  It's fairly expensive, and we don't use that much soy sauce that I'm worried about the soy.  I did run into a post describing how to make a pretty good substitute sauce from items in the pantry, if you are interested.

Coconut Crystals
Dr. Weil says this is a sweetener made from the sap of a coconut palm that has been boiled and dehydrated.  It provides the same number of calories and carbohydrates as cane sugar, but more of it's sugar is sucrose as opposed to fructose or glucose, and we want to avoid fructose.  It is a light brown sugar with a flavor similar to brown cane sugar.  I haven't bought any, as I have some succanat (unrefined cane sugar) to use up first, but I might try it next time I'm looking for a sugar substitute to bake with.

This is a sausage and veggie breakfast, sauteed in coconut oil.

This is a new favorite breakfast combo - Jones sausage, apple, onion, sauerkraut, zucchini and kale, sauteed in coconut oil.  I love the sweet-sour flavor!  When you include sauerkraut, taste before adding any salt.

My first try at French fried sweet potatoes in coconut oil didn’t work out, as they were very soggy, and my second try burned (the recipe said, “Do not open the oven or fidget with them during this time. Just let 'em cook. The smell will probably be too much to bear, so perhaps this is a good time to go to another room and focus on something else.”)   Yes, well I focused on something else and when the timer went off, my fries were pretty black.  The original recipe called for olive oil, so it's possible using coconut oil made them cook faster.  I actually prefer a baked sweet potato with butter, but Stan liked the fries, so I'll try again and watch them this time.  (P.S. Third time was a charm and we both liked them.)

Asparagus quiche – I’m impressed with Daniella’s recipes in Against All Grain – (sorry, I couldn't find this recipe on her blog) - the quantities and cooking times seem to work out perfectly.  This was really two recipes – the crust and the filling.  The crust had a few tablespoons of coconut flour, but was mainly made with almond flour and vegetable shortening made of palm oil.  I thought it was pretty good for being gluten free, but Stan thought the flavor didn’t compliment the filling. 

The filling was made with eggs and coconut milk.  Danielle warns to let it cool to room temperature before serving, but I wanted it warm so I cut it early and it was a tiny bit liquidy.  I also thought the color wasn’t quite as lovely as a quiche made with cream.  The combination of asparagus, prosciutto and leek was good, although I’m not a huge prosciutto fan.  (At my favorite co-op, PCC Markets, they slice the prosciutto to order and I thought it was better than the packaged stuff.)  Bottom line – if you’re not cooking for someone with a milk allergy, I’d use real cream for quiche.

Butternut squash soup  - This recipe from Practical Paleo, by Diane Sanfilippo, was really good!  When I chose it, I hadn’t noticed the small amount of coconut milk.   I was thinking of a recipe I made earlier that had at least a half cup of cream and assumed the amount of coconut milk would be similar, but this only calls for two tablespoons.  I added a pretty generous two tablespoons plus a drizzle at the end, and the soup was nice and creamy – actually quite delicious!  It has orange juice in it, and those are fried sage leaves on top.  Stan liked it too, but noticed the immersion blender didn’t make it completely smooth.  I’ll try the blender next time, and maybe roast the squash longer so it is softer.  I’ll make this again, and the recipe is online so you can make it too!

Chicken Satay - Yum!  This was a very tasty and easy chicken dish from Against All Grain that Stan says he hopes to see again.  (I couldn't find this exact recipe online, but there are many similar ones.)  According to wikipedia, satay is a skewered and grilled meat dish served with a sauce.  We don't have a grill, so I cooked it on a grill pan and I realized right away that the skewers were too long for the pan.  No problem, I just cooked the strips of chicken without skewers.  The good flavor came from marinating the chicken strips in coconut milk with lime juice and curry spices.  We both loved the tasty chicken, but we thought the dipping sauce, made with almond butter and coconut milk, was unnecessary and not that great.

Berries and Cream - What a tasty and easy dessert from Against All Grain!  You just put a can of coconut milk in the fridge overnight, then spoon out the cream from the top and sweeten it with a teaspoon or so of honey.  We both agreed it didn't fool us into thinking it was whipped cream, but we were scraping our bowls and licking our spoons when it was gone.

French vanilla coffee creamer - I had hopes this coffee creamer would provide a substitute for the Starbucks soy latte that I really like, but it's not as good.  I don't care for the vanilla flavored creamers sold in grocery stores, so if you like them you might give this a try.  It's okay, but not great.  It is made from half and half coconut milk and almond milk, sweetened with half and half maple syrup and honey, flavored with a vanilla bean and brought to a boil.  I was skeptical that the honey and maple syrup would separate out and stick in the bottom of the jar, but when I shook the jar, it all mixed together nicely.  I suspect it might be delicious made with real cream.

This pizza crust was made with 1 part coconut flour to 2 parts almond meal.  It tasted fine, and held up with the pizza on it, but was a bit too thick and cakey.  I'll try some other recipes before settling for this.

Blueberry waffles – These waffles from Against All Grain were surprisingly good! (The recipe is online at the link.)  Stan enjoyed one too, although he declined another heated up in the toaster the following day.  They contain both coconut oil and coconut flour, also raw cashews and eggs.  I thought the flavor was delicious.  We were out of vanilla so I used almond extract instead, but  I couldn’t really taste the almond, the flavor was more like coconut.   The texture wasn’t as great as Stan’s regular wheat flour waffles – not as crispy, although warming in the oven for a while before serving helped crisp them up a bit.  Bottom line – easy to make and a nice change from eggs for breakfast once in a while.

Sandwich Bread – This bread from Against All Grain is also online.  It has only ¼ cup of coconut flour per loaf, and that plus baking soda and salt are the only dry ingredients, the rest is made up of cashew butter and eggs.  It’s quicker to make than regular yeast-raised bread, and rises due to beaten egg whites and the baking soda.  The photo in the book was much whiter than mine.  It called for a cup of cashew butter and when I measured it out, it used more than half my 16 oz. jar.  Next time I may weigh out 8 oz. instead.  It actually tastes pretty good and toasts well, and if I couldn’t eat any wheat, I’d be happy to have a slice of this bread. 

Breakfast Cookies - This recipe from Against All Grain was a disappointment.  As you can see, they did not turn out looking like the photo in the book, and while starting to turn black on the bottom, they still seem undercooked in the middle.  They taste fine - not very sweet.  They're made with both coconut flour and unsweetened shredded coconut.   If I make them again, I'll flatten them out quite a bit more before baking; I expected they would spread out more when they got hot.

Lemon-vanilla macaroons

These cookies from Against All Grain sounded so delicious I just had to make them.  They are very tasty, but I had trouble with the sizing of the cookies.  The instructions said to make balls with an ice cream scoop, and the recipe was supposed to make 12, which would make them pretty big.  They got quite brown on the bottom before cooking in the middle, so I made some smaller and that worked out well.  I wound up cutting the bottoms off the big ones and remaking them smaller and baking a bit longer, so I ended up with about two dozen small cookies.  They are very sweet and the lemony-vanilla flavor is yummy.

Bottom Line

By the time I finished cooking for this post, I was tired of cooking and tired of making things that just weren't that great.  So what did I learn from it?

  • Coconut products aren't always a great substitute.  In recipes where the texture and flavor of real cream is important, as in the quiche,  I'd rather use real cream and make them only occasionally than have a lesser quality dish more often.  Ditto for some baked products like the pizza crust and breakfast cookies. Part of what is making this diet/eating plan work for me is that I decided to only eat food I think is really good.
  • It's worth trying new recipes and new ingredients because I found a few keepers.  Recipes I'll definitely make again include the butternut squash soup, chicken satay, French fried sweet potatoes and berries and cream dessert.  Maybe the blueberry waffles.
  •  I will continue to experiment with cooking with coconut products, as well as other healthy foods that are new to me, but I won't make coconut an every day addition to my diet.  I think it's healthiest and most enjoyable to eat a wide variety of foods and not a lot of one thing day after day.


  1. I love coconut sugar and cook most everything in coconut oil. Don't forget about doing an "oil pull" with it as well. You have done such a great job with your research. Thanks!

    1. Thanks Charla! I have read about oil pulling - sounded a bit gross, but I'll give it a try. Found this article from Wellness Mama that tells exactly how to do it.