Sometimes buying the unsweetened version isn't always better. I don't want to say who, but someone thought it would be a good idea to buy unsweetened coconut for a batch of macaroons last week thinking that this was the less-processed "better" choice, and that someone was very disappointed with her cookies. This week's public service announcement: sweetened and unsweetened coconut are two very different ingredients, and both deserve a spot in your pantry.
Sweetened and unsweetened coconut start their journey the same way by shredding the flesh of a ripe coconut. Sweetened coconut gets partially dried and mixed with sugar. It is soft and chewy, and is fairly snackable straight from the package (...ahem). Unsweetened coconut gets completely dried. It's fairly brittle, more finely shredded, and has a longer shelf life.
For the most part, this is one ingredient where I think that it's best to follow the recipe. Sweetened coconut is generally used in sweet recipes, like cakes and cookies, while unsweetened coconut is generally used in savory recipes, like curries and granola. A cake that calls for sweetened coconut will be very different in both texture and flavor if made with unsweetened coconut. By contrast, a curry recipe that calls for unsweetened shredded coconut will taste strangely sweet if you use sweetened.
Sometimes the substitution can work to your advantage. I found a recipe for macaroons that intentionally used unsweetened coconut, though the macaroon it made was more delicately textured and firmly-packed than the macaroons I usually make (closer to these No-Bake Coconut Snowballs). If you're curious about substituting unsweetened for sweetened, start by bumping up the sweetener and the liquid in your recipe. Who knows, you might end up with a new favorite variation of an old favorite recipe!
From here on out, I'm keeping both kinds of coconut on hand in my pantry. When the mood for something coconut-y strikes, I want to have exactly what I need to satisfy the craving.
(Image: Emma Christensen)