Coconut is both a familiar flavor and an uncommon fruit. It's eaten around the world, and the taste of anything made with coconut is instantly recognizable. Although for many people, it's most familiar in processed forms, such as milk, cream, ice cream, or in its dry form (desiccated or flour). The coconut fruit grows on the coconut palm tree, which is grown in tropical areas worldwide. Selecting and preparing the whole fruit can be intimidating, but it gets easier once you do it a few times. The flesh and juice are enjoyed raw or blended to make coconut milk. The flesh can also be grated, toasted, or cooked into a variety of dishes from around the world.
What Is a Coconut?
Coconut is the mature fruit of the coconut palm tree (Cocos nucifera). The tree is classified into two main groups—tall and dwarf—though there are several varieties that fall into these categories and a number of hybrids under cultivation. They grow in tropical regions throughout the world. Fresh coconuts are not cheap, and the price will vary with the season and the year's production. The price has also risen due to increased global demand for coconut water and other products in recent years.
The coconut is a fruit, nut, and seed, and classified as a drupe (a stone fruit, like the peach). When growing on the tree, it has two outer layers that are removed before going to the market. This leaves the familiar brown, hairy layer called the endocarp, which is often thought of as the shell. On the outside are three round indentations, which are called "eyes." Opening the coconut reveals juice surrounded by a thick layer of white, fibrous meat.
Preparing a coconut involves cracking the shell open. First, you'll want to poke a knife into the softest eye and drain out the juice. Using a hammer, you'll hit the coconut on its "equator" line until it splits open, and the two halves can be pulled apart. The juice and meat can be made into coconut milk, or the meat can be eaten raw, cooked into a dish, or shredded.
Sometimes you'll find a recipe that calls for "young green coconut." This is an immature fruit that's harvested before the fibrous shell has developed. The meat inside is thinner, though it contains more and sweeter juice. Common in Southeast Asian cuisines, it's also the best option when you want to drink juice straight out of the coconut.
How to Cook With Coconut
The trickiest part of preparing fresh coconut is removing the meat from the shell. This can be done by prying it away with a dull butter knife or baking it for an hour in foil, which makes it much easier.
Blending the coconut juice with some of the meat and water makes fresh coconut milk. Coconut meat makes a delicious and healthy snack when eaten raw. Most recipes that call for fresh coconut suggest how to prepare the meat. You can also shred the meat and use it instead of store-bought shredded coconut as an ingredient or garnish. It's popular to toast it as well.
One medium-sized fresh coconut will yield 3 to 4 cups grated or flaked coconut and 1 cup of liquid. Do not pack tightly when measuring grated or flaked coconut. If shredded coconut becomes dry, soak it in milk for 30 minutes, then drain off the milk and pat dry with paper towels. You can use the drained milk in recipes or blended drinks within five days.
Many recipes call for sweetened coconut. To sweeten it at home, dissolve 4 teaspoons sugar in 1/4 cup of hot water in a saucepan, then let 1 cup of coconut soak up the liquid. Set it out to dry if needed for the recipe.
What Does It Taste Like?
All forms of coconut have a tropical sweetness. The meat is crunchy and a little nutty, the juice is slightly milky, and coconut milk is rich and creamy. A young coconut's juice is less rich and milky, more reminiscent of slightly sweetened water.
From desserts to soups and main dishes, there's a great deal of cooking to be done with coconut. It's popular in foods from tropical areas of the world where coconut is plentiful, particularly in Thai cuisine. Coconut can also be used with fish, either as a crust or marinade. Coconut milk and cream are popular ingredients for smoothies, cocktails like the piña colada, and other beverages.
Where to Buy Coconuts
Mature coconuts are available in many markets and grocery stores year-round. Young green coconuts are more of a specialty item. You might have luck at Asian markets, though they are becoming easier to find due to their increasing popularity. Coconuts are delicate and don't have a long shelf-life, so while they are available online, it's best to thoroughly research the retailer. Autumn is the best time to find the cheapest prices on fresh coconut. If you live in an area with perfect growing conditions, it is possible to grow coconuts at home. It does require patience as it can take about seven years for the palm to fruit; indoor cultivation is even more difficult.
Choosing coconuts yourself or with the help of a knowledgable vendor is the best way to ensure you get it at the stage of maturity that fits your use. Look for coconuts that feel heavy for their size. Avoid coconuts with cracks and those whose eyes are damp, moist, or moldy. Shake the coconut; it should slosh with liquid and sound full.
Coconut is also more easily found in its many processed forms. You can find sweetened and unsweetened shredded coconut or flakes and, less often, diced coconut meat. Coconut cream, milk, and water are also sold in most markets. The milk can be found in either cans or cartons. The canned variety is richer and tends to separate in the can; the carton version is ready to drink and a popular alternative to dairy milk. Additionally, coconut oil is a popular cooking fat option and alternative to butter. It's sold in solid form but easily softens and liquefies under heat.
How you store coconut is going to depend on which form you purchase. The high oil content makes coconut quickly turn rancid if not stored under the proper conditions.
Fresh unopened coconut can be stored at room temperature for up to four months, depending on its original freshness when purchased. Grated, fresh coconut should be put in a tightly sealed container or plastic bag. It can be stored in the refrigerator for up to four days or frozen for up to six months.
Unopened canned coconut can be stored at room temperature for up to 18 months. Packaged coconut in plastic bags can be stored up to six months at room temperature. Once opened, both of these should be refrigerated and used quickly: five to seven days for canned and four weeks for dried coconut.