The fruit of a tall palm tree, coconut is found in grocery stores as sweetened or unsweetened flakes for use in baking cakes, cookies and muffins. In cooking, unsweetened coconut can flavor curries and stews, or be used to make fresh coconut milk. While it's best to stick with the kind of coconut specified for in the recipe, unsweetened coconut flakes can serve as a substitute for the sweet version with the application of a few extra steps.
Most unsweetened coconut sold in grocery stores is desiccated, meaning all the moisture has been removed to preserve the flakes. Sweetened coconut is sold in bags or cans as “flake,” “angel flake” and “moist.” Its texture is different from that of the unsweetened coconut. To rehydrate your unsweetened flakes, soak 5 tablespoons of coconut in 4 tablespoons of water for about an hour before adding to a recipe. This will yield a half cup of coconut. If you are grating the coconut yourself, there is already enough moisture in the flakes and no soaking is necessary.
Sweetened coconut is made by combining confectioners' sugar with coconut flakes. Using unsweetened when the recipe calls for sweetened will result in a batter that is less sweet, but won't affect your recipe in any other way. To replace the sugar, add 1 tablespoon of powdered or regular white sugar per half cup of unsweetened coconut. You can adjust this sweetness using more or less sugar, according to your taste preference.
When a recipe calls for coconut milk, it might specify sweetened or unsweetened. Canned coconut milk from the ethnic food section of your grocery store is usually unsweetened with listed ingredients such as coconut, water and thickeners. Labels that specify “lite” do not refer to the sugar content, but rather the amount of fat. Sweetened coconut milk is often labeled as “coconut cream,” or “cream of coconut.” These are mixtures of coconut milk and other ingredients, so substituting unsweetened coconut milk in a recipe that specifies sweetened is not recommended.
Both sweetened and unsweetened dried coconut flakes have a long shelf life when stored in a sealed bag and tightly packed. Stored in the freezer, they can last up to six months. Fresh coconut also freezes very well, and can be stored for a few days in the refrigerator. When buying canned coconut milk, sweetened or unsweetened, check the expiration dates for shelf life. Fresh coconut milk -- and canned once it has been opened -- can be stored in the refrigerator no more than two days.
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