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Selecting & Using Coconuts

Kasma Loha-unchit, March 4th, 2011

How to buy a coconut at the store? Most Americans know coconuts primarily as the highly processed, sweetened products they’ve had sprinkled over coconut cakes or in mixes for piña coladas. Neither is a fair representation of what fresh coconuts really are like with their rich and nutty taste and mild, naturally sweet flavor.

Brown Coconut

Brown coconut in U.S.

Though supermarkets routinely carry coconuts, most people do not have the slightest clue of how to select one, much less what to do with it once they have brought one home. They try to poke holes in the eyes to drain out the liquid, then take a hammer to it to crack it open, sometimes accidentally jabbing or banging their own hands.

(Click on an image to see a larger version.)

After taking the trouble to get inside the hard shell, nothing is more discouraging than to find that the flesh has turned rancid. Such an experience is sure to deter a novice from ever bringing another one home, resigning herself to the packaged stuff on the shelf.

Coconut Eyes

These eyes don't look fresh

But wait! You should give it another try. Here are a few tips to get you started again, keeping in mind that the rich, nutty flavor of a good, fresh coconut is hard to beat.

Unlike nuts such as almonds, coconuts are more delicate than most people realize and do not have an indefinite shelf life, especially after the outer husks have been removed. Without the protection of the spongy husks, the shells bang against each other in transport and often crack and develop leaks. The eyes on one end are also exposed and subject to puncture and air seepage, or mold growing inward. Air and mold entering the coconut make the rich flesh spoil quickly. That is why when purchasing a coconut, take care to choose one still heavy with juice.

White Coconut

White, cooked coconut

Shake it, and if it seems dry, chances are there is a crack or leak in the shell, or it may have sat on the shelf too long, the juice having all but evaporated through the thin membranes of the eyes. Check the eyes, they shouldn’t look dark or moldy. Though often sealed with wax to prevent leakage, this does not guarantee that it has not occurred.

When looking for a coconut to buy, search first for a batch with an overall appearance suggesting freshness. If there are several that are moldy or cracked, try another store. From a fresh-looking batch, choose the best-looking one, and if you wish to be doubly sure, take home an extra as a back-up.

If you are not going to use the coconut right away, store in a cool dry place with good ventilation, or unwrapped in the refrigerator so that the shell does not become damp from condensation.

Two Coconut Halves

Halves, ready to be heated

Because the eyes are small and the surrounding shell thick and hard, draining the juice by poking holes in the eyes, as suggested in some cookbooks, may not be as easy as it sounds. The slow trickle may soon tax your patience.

A quick and easy way to crack and drain all at the same time is to use a cleaver. Holding it with one hand such that the “midriff” rests in the middle of your palm, with the tip on one end and the eyes on the other, whack the coconut hard with the dull side of a cleaver a few times until it cracks just enough to drain the juice, but not enough to split open. Do this over a bowl in the sink if you wish to save the juice. If the juice tastes fresh, then the flesh is still good. (Check out Kasma’s video on How to Crack a Coconut.)

Coconut Meat

Coconut meat, after heating

After draining, stick the whole coconut into a hot oven (400-450°) for about 20 minutes. Then cool sufficiently to handle before cracking it open into smaller sections. The heat of the oven would have loosened the meat from the shell, making it easier to pry out with a small knife, spoon or clean screwdriver. Cracking and draining the coconut before placing in a hot oven will prevent it from exploding, an experience you most certainly want to avoid!

Peel off some of the brown skin if you wish. Cut into smaller chunks and shred or chop in the food processor to the fineness desired for making your Thai desserts. To try out your coconut skills, try Kasma’s Grilled Coconut Cakes (Kanom Paeng Jee).

Kasma’s recipe page lists many Thai desserts using coconut or coconut milk.

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Written by Kasma Loha-unchit, March, 2011

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