Ask Peter: Substituting coconut
Hi, I simply can’t abide the taste or texture of coconut in any form. But so many recipes require coconut cream/milk, coconut oil, and shredded coconut. What are some good substitutes?
Thanks, Siobhan Leathley.
I have to say, I sit at the opposite end of the coconut appreciation spectrum from you. I adore coconut in everything and anything and think my culinary life would be far less enjoyable if the fruits (which, by the way are drupes, rather like a plum or pistachio, and not actually nuts) from the palms didn’t exist. I’m not sure if it’s the texture or flavour you don’t enjoy and, of course, the texture of desiccated coconut is nothing like that of the oil or cream. If it’s the flavour you don’t like, then there are alternatives but it won’t be an easy like-for-like swap.
If you’re making a curry that calls for coconut milk or cream (a thicker version of the milk which has more coconut fat solids held in suspension, then you can replace it entirely with a combination of stock, plain yoghurt and even cream. However, if the curry sauce or ingredients are overly acidic, then you do run the risk of the curry splitting if it’s cooked at too high a heat, so go gently with it.
If you wanted to make vattalapam, a Sri Lankan dessert very similar to a creme caramel that uses coconut milk, palm sugar, cashew nuts and spices, then you can make it exactly like a creme caramel and use cream instead. See my recipe here. The resultant dessert won’t pass muster with any Sri Lankans, but it will still be a delicious dessert.
If you were making a Thai-style chicken coconut soup, “tom kha gai”, you could replace the coconut milk with cream but the contrast between dairy and coconut milk would be very noticeable. However, you could do it and still produce a great result.
As for making Puerto Rico’s national drink, pina colada, without it — I’d suggest you don’t bother, as it will simply not be as it was intended.
Coconut oil, apart from being good to rub on your lips like a balm, gives dishes a lovely earthy, nutty flavour — but I assume this is exactly why you don’t want it. In any recipe saying to use it, simply replace with any other cooking oil.
Shredded coconut can mostly be replaced with coarsely ground or chopped nuts, and desiccated coconut with ground nuts. Both coconut and nuts have a decent amount of natural oil in them, so can mostly be substituted for each other. I remember hitch-hiking along the Mekong River in the mid-1980s and stumbled across the most delicious coconut croissants there — just like the almond croissants I’d eaten in bakeries but because almonds are not grown in Thailand, they had simply been replaced with desiccated coconut. It’s likely the croissants themselves wouldn’t have had as much butter in them (if any at all, as dairy products are expensive in Asia) and I’m sure some coconut oil had been used in the dough so delicious was the flavour. I gave a recipe for these, with pandan extract added, in a book I wrote a few years back, A Culinary Journey.
I’ve also made pear and almond tart, very much a French patisserie staple in autumn, replacing the ground almonds with desiccated coconut, and the pears with poached wedges of pineapple. The resultant tart is lovely and rich, but a more suntanned version of the original. I also like to serve it with a custard made from coconut milk, palm sugar and crushed green cardamom instead of cream, caster sugar and vanilla. But that won’t be for you.
As I’m typing this, I’m really trying to understand why someone wouldn’t appreciate or like coconut but I guess it’s just one of those things, like people who don’t like coriander. Or brussels sprouts — and the latter is me. I just don’t appreciate them ...
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