Photo by Elizabeth Coetzee, Food styling by Micah Marie Morton
Perhaps the last time you were at the bar, you came across a piña colada or a coconut martini on the menu. The two luscious drinks have several ingredients in common—including cream of coconut.
From the name, you might assume that cream of coconut is the same thing as the coconut cream or maybe the canned coconut milk that you regularly buy at the grocery store, but it turns out that these creamy, coconutty products aren’t at all the same. So which do you need for cooking, baking, and sipping? We answer these questions below—but first, a little backstory.
Cream of coconut history
Young coconuts start out as a light green color with a hard shell. As they ripen they turn yellow and then finally a dark brown color that most people associate with this tropical fruit. The earliest method of extracting coconut meat involved removing the outer husk and steaming the hard shell—which encases the water and coconut meat—until it’s soft enough to crack. You won’t find coconut cream inside a coconut, though; it’s pulverized from a combination of coconut meat and water. The same applies to coconut milk, which is made by blending coconut meat and even more water. The wide commercial availability of these products came as the result of research and experimentation conducted by Don Ramón López-Irizarry—a pioneer who changed the way people enjoy coconut to this day.
During the late 1940s, López-Irizarry, a professor of agricultural sciences at the University of Puerto Rico, received a grant from the Puerto Rican government aimed at aiding the development of local industries. Part of his work involved figuring out an efficient, mechanical process for removing the heart of the coconut and drawing out the cream.
In 1948, López-Irizarry discovered a way to emulsify the cream of coconut in his small laboratory by blending it with water and stabilizers to create a creamy texture sweetened with natural cane sugar. López-Irizarry’s discovery helped him develop Coco López, a brand solely dedicated to cream of coconut.
In 1954, López-Irizarry introduced Coco López to the market. This thick, syrup-like cream was used to create the piña colada—which became the official drink of Puerto Rico in 1978—and many popular sweet treats including piña colada cake, coconut soufflé, ice cream, and coconut creme pie.
So what’s the difference between cream of coconut and coconut cream?
Though they sound similar, cream of coconut is not the same as coconut cream or coconut milk. “What separates standard coconut cream from cream of coconut is the added sweetener [in cream of coconut] that coconut cream lacks,” says Dylan McCabe, general manager and bartender at Printers Alley. “Coconut milk has a higher water content than coconut cream, but both are blended concoctions of coconut water and coconut meat.” Coconut cream, however, has more coconut meat in the mixture, making it thicker and richer.
What is cream of coconut used for?
The nostalgic sweetness and emulsified texture of cream of coconut make it a common choice for blended cocktails. “It is typically used in tropical drinks, most famously the piña colada, Chi Chi, and Painkiller,” says H. Joseph Ehrmann, owner of Elixir in San Francisco and mixologist for the Fresh Victor mixer line. But the richness and sweetness of cream of coconut can be useful in your kitchen beyond drinks: on Epicurious, you’ll find recipes for coconut lime pops, coconut rum cake, and a luscious coconut cheesecake that calls for Coco López.
Where can you buy cream of coconut?
You’ll sometimes find cream of coconut—including brands like Coco López and Coco Reàl—near the mixers in your grocery store, but if you don’t see them, the cans can also be ordered online. Both of these brands of cream of coconut provide a sweet coconut flavor, but Coco López is a bit thicker in texture, while Coco Reàl is thinner and a bit sweeter.
Coco Lopez Coconut Cream
How to make cream of coconut at home
If you can’t find cream of coconut at your local grocery store and you’re making a piña colada right this minute, there’s no need to fret. You can easily make your own cream of coconut at home with a few pantry staples. All you need is coconut milk powder, a can of full-fat coconut milk, ¾ cup of sugar, and a touch of salt.
“Place the ingredients in a pot and place over low heat and mix until all the sugar has dissolved,” says McCabe. “Once that’s done, store in an airtight container.”
If you store your homemade cream of coconut in the refrigerator, it will last up to a week. For access to frozen piña coladas in minutes, freeze the homemade cream of coconut in an ice tray and pop the cubes out whenever you want.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious
Pour another cocktail…
Sign up for our cocktail newsletter, After Hours.
Make a better Manhattan—and then make its neighbors.
Salted. Amaro. Espresso. Martini. Need we say more?
Find your new favorite whiskey cocktails.
The best cocktails you’ve probably never heard of, recommended by pro bartenders.
The amaretto sour is back, baby.