Selecting a Coconut for Purchase
by Kasma Loha-unchit
Kasma's blog on Selecting & Using coconuts
Nothing compares with the flavor of fresh-pressed coconut milk. Though there are several brands of rather good canned coconut milk now available on the market, freshly pressed milk will have a fragrant, naturally sweet and delightfully nutty flavor lacking in the canned products. But finding a fully developed and reasonably fresh coconut in American markets is sometimes not as easy as it may seem. Many of those you see in supermarkets or Asian stores near your home are not quite old enough; they have been grown for the meat itself and harvested at a slightly earlier stage of maturity. Frequently, these coconuts are not very fresh, unless the store receives regular shipments each week.
Unlike nuts such as almonds and walnuts, coconuts are more delicate than most people realize and do not have a long shelf life, especially after the outer husks have been removed. The fibrous husks are nature's protective cushion and are integral parts of coconuts, but because of their bulkiness, they usually have been pulled off and discarded. If stores do carry coconuts with husks still on, they may have trouble selling them. The dried, brown husks of matured coconuts aren't particularly attractive, and how would consumers here figure out how to get inside of one? It seems difficult enough to deal with the hard shell.
Without the outer husks, the shells bang against each other in transport and often crack or 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 will make the rich meat spoil quickly. That's why when purchasing a coconut at the store, be careful to choose one that is still heavy with juice. 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 eyes. Check the eyes, they shouldn't look dark or moldy. Though often sealed with wax to prevent leakage, this does not guarantee that leakage has not occurred.
When looking for a coconut to buy, search first for a batch whose overall appearance suggests freshness. If there are several that are moldy and 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 back-up. If the market carries more than one kind of coconuts, select from those with rich brown shells if you wish to press fresh milk. Inside, the thick flesh should be a pure white color; if it has started to yellow, it most probably is rancid. Besides the thickness of the flesh, you can usually tell whether a coconut is old enough to yield creamy milk by looking at a cross-section of the shell. A well-matured one would have developed a very hard, chocolate-brown inner shell; this is the shell that can be carved to make implements and decorative items.
Coconuts with lighter brown shells generally are not as fully matured; the meat is delicious as a snack in itself, or shredded to make fillings and toppings for snack foods, appetizers and desserts. Milk pressed from these coconuts may be less creamy than good brands of canned coconut milk but its flavor can be fresher and tastier if you happened to have chosen coconuts from a shipment just off the boat from Asia. And although this milk is not quite creamy enough for curries and certain kinds of desserts, it adds a fragrant nuttiness to coconut soups that makes them heavenly!
You might enjoy learning how to Cook Thai food from Kasma in a Thai cooking class.