The coconut palm (Cocos nucifera) is native to the coastal regions of tropical Southeast Asia. The seeds of this tall slender tree can float for months so ocean currents have carried it far and wide and commerce has carried it even farther. It is now grown in just about every suitable tropical region in the world.
Coconut is not just important to the cuisines of the regions where it
grows, but to the very survival of the people. The fruit provides protein,
calories, minerals, vitamins and flavors. From it come beverages, oil for
cooking and even the fire over which to cook. The shells make containers,
the fronds provide roofing material and the trunks provide building lumber.
Photo © b0005
Shown are the three forms whole coconuts are sold in: fresh (left, 5 inches diameter, 2-1/3 pounds, very full), brown (front, 4-3/4 inches diameter, 1-3/4 pounds, still quite full) and fresh young (right 5 inches diameter, 2-1/2 pounds).
Fresh Coconut and Brown Coconut are bought for the white flesh (called "copra") they contain. A fresh coconut still has a lot of water in it, palatable, but not as sweet as that of the fresh young coconut. The brown coconut will have less water and that water will be even less sweet, but still drinkable if there is a lot of it. The flesh of the brown coconut is harder and has a more intense flavor than that of the fresh coconut which is too soft and light in flavor for many recipes, and particularly for making coconut milk.
Fresh Young Coconuts are sold for the water they contain which is sweeter and more flavorful than that of older coconuts. They are trimmed as shown and a lot of the weight is wet fiber. They should be sold tightly wrapped in plastic film to retain moisture. The shell is still too soft to stand the fiber being ripped off, and the flesh is thin and so soft you can eat it with a spoon. The flesh has much less flavor and sweetness than that of a mature coconut. They are often sold by street vendors with a hole punched into them for a straw. This water, usually with flakes of the pulp, is widely available in cans (see products below). A 2-1/2 coconut will yield about 1-1/2 cups of water and 4 ounces of flesh (used in some recipes along with the water).
Mutant Gelatinous Coconut [Macapuno, Kopyor] This coconut is available in the Philippines and Indonesia where it is used for various desserts. It may be found preserved in syrup in stores catering to Philippine communities. The flesh of this coconut does not harden but stays gelatinous.Buying and Storing Coconuts
Fresh Coconuts will keep as long as 3 weeks but will start to turn brown and may crack. Keep them in a dry place or the fibers on the outside will mold. Brown Coconuts can also be kept a couple weeks if they still have plenty of water but not so long that they dry out.Preparing Coconuts
Preparing coconuts for use is simple but requires a bit of mechanical dexterity and strength. If you don't feel up to it have someone accustomed to using tools do it (some husbands are good for this, but others will just injure themselves).
Yield: A mature coconut should yield about 12 oz of copra (coconut meat) after shelling and peeling off the brown backing. This is equivalent to about 4 oz dried coconut. Dried grated coconut runs about 4 oz to one cup lightly packed so a whole coconut will be about 1 cup of dried grated coconut. So if an Indian recipe calls for "1/2 dried coconut grated", figure about 2 oz of dried grated coconut or 6 oz of fresh.
A fresh coconut will also yield about 1-1/2 cups of coconut water which is rarely used in recipes, so it's for the cook. Pour it into a 2 cup glass measuring cup and chill it up in the freezer with a judicious dollop of chilled vodka poured in. It'll improve your disposition and nobody'll suspect a thing, "Its just coconut water".
Here are the steps for preparing a coconut, but for more detail and
pictures see my page Coconut Milk
Fresh Young Coconut will keep a week or so, but since the whole objective is the fresh juice inside, you want to minimize storage - the longer the storage the less juice. If kept moist the fiber on the outside will mold, and since the shell is very soft mold could penetrate to the flesh and juice. If you keep it dry it'll dry out.
The water is a little less clear than from a mature coconut and it's
comparatively sweet. If you split the coconut open you can eat the
flesh with a spoon. It is thin, in some areas it may be so thin you can
see shell through it. The jelly like flesh is pleasant enough to eat but
it can't be used in any normal coconut recipe because the flavor is just
Coconut Milk is made by grinding up the coconut flesh, soaking it in water and squeezing it dry for the liquid. Generally two soakings are used, the first for "thick" coconut milk and the second for "thin" coconut milk. For freshest quality make it yourself but canned is pretty good and a whole lot easier. Buy only unsweetened, the ingredients should not list any kind of sugar. My usual brand is Aroy-D which is a very thick good tasting coconut milk, though I have had others just as good - and some that were a bit thin. See my page Coconut Milk for details on how to make fresh coconut milk.
Coconut Cream floats to the top of coconut milk and can be skimmed off. Just as with cream from cow's milk this is the oil rising to the top. Most cans of coconut milk will have some cream, which usually sticks to the top lid and has to be scraped off. Rich coconut cream is also sold in cans, but buy only unsweetened with no sugar in the ingredients. My usual brand is Savoy, though there are other fine brands as well.
Coconut Water from "fresh young coconuts" as described above is also available in cans. The tall can in the picture is Parrot brand and like others features some chips of the soft pulp floating in it. The brands I've sampled are Parrot, Goya, del Valle and Polynesian Treasure, all from Thailand and all sweetened with sugar (coconut sugar, we hope). Parrot is a little watered down, Polynesian and de Valle were fine, but Goya was waaaaaay over-sweetened.
Dried Coconut is produced commercially and sold grated or flaked in bags. Several degrees of fineness may be available. Again, buy unsweetened for ethnic recipes - dried coconut sold for use in baking may be heavily sweetened. Kept in a cool dry place dried coconut should keep for months but will eventually discolor..
Dry grated coconut can be substituted in recipes calling for fresh coconut but it needs to be reconstituted by soaking in water for 20 minutes or more before use. For very fine grated use 4 T water to 4 T coconut and you'll end up with about 1/3 cup of reconstituted coconut or 3 oz. For courser grated use 3 T water to 4 T coconut and you'll end up with about 1/3 cup but it'll only weigh 2 oz
In Indian markets you may find "grate it yourself" dried half coconuts.
You might not recognize them at first because they're so small. Coconut
shrinks a lot as it dries so a dried half coconut may be only 2-1/2 to 3
inches across. The left half in the photo was 3-1/8 inch diameter and
weighed 3-1/8 ounces - and was as hard as plastic.
Coconut Oil was formerly used in many American food products, along with the similar palm oil. Together they are known as "tropical oils". These oils were driven out of the market by the American Heart Association's high profile and well financed vilification of saturated fats as artery cloggers.
The AHA vilification was not based on valid science, was certainly not supported by demographics and has been discredited by other researchers and by people on the Atkins diet who ate plenty of saturated animal fats (the very worst according to the AHA) and didn't die. The AHA is still preaching this gospel to the delight of the seed oil cartels.
The AHA urged us to replace tropical oils with partially hydrogenated seed oils (trans fats) now known to be the most deadly of all artery clogging fats. Coconut Oil (92% saturated fat) is the dominant cooking oil in large parts of Southeast Asia from southern India to the Philippines. The people of this region do not show the dire symptoms predicted by the AHA but are instead rather "heart healthy".
Tropical Oils are again appearing in the American food market brought in by food processors desperate to replace those deadly trans fats with something safe. Coconut oil in particular is considered the most healthy of all oils by a growing number of health practitioners.
Some of the pro-coconut partisans are just as shrill as the anti-coconut folks and declare all vegetable oils based on polyunsaturated fats to be dangerous because they quickly go rancid and generate carcinogens. Some are even suspicious of monounsaturated fats like olive oil. More on all this at at link (C1). When money flows from powerful commercial enterprises like the seed oil cartels, and careers and egos of academic researchers are on the line, the truth is difficult to know. You can pay a scientist to prove anything.
Personally, I fall back on the demographic data. Are the people who consume lots of coconut oil suffering as predicted? No? Did Americans have a lot of artery problems back when they practically lived on saturated pig fat? No? Well then, where's the problem?
In India cooks who have ghee and mustard oil do look down on coconut oil as "smelly", but most coconut oil available in the U.S. comes from the Philippines and is completely deodorized. The smelly stuff can only be found in a few Indian specialty markets here - and possibly in health food stores as "all natural".
I have used Philippine coconut oil and have found it a very fine cooking oil, clear and without flavors that would interfere with food taste. Its one weakness is smoke point. It can withstand only 350°F/177°C, which is higher than butter but not as high as ghee (highly clarified butter). It can be stored at room temperatures for a very long time without rancidity.Recipes Links