Know Your Fruits and Veggies™: Coconut
By Dawn Swidorski
I must confess that when I started working on this article on coconut I thought it would be easy. Coconuts are delicious and nutritious and what more can be said? Turns out coconuts are amazing and from a culinary stand point just as versatile as the rest of the plant. Found throughout tropical and subtropical areas, virtually every part of the coconut palm can be used by humans in some manner and has significant economic value.
Coconut can refer to the entire coconut palm, the seed, or the fruit, which, botanically, is a drupe, not a nut. Drupes are a fruit with a thin outer skin, soft pulpy middle, and hard stony central part that encloses a seed. Apricots, plums, cherries, and almonds are examples of drupes.
As with most fruits and vegetables, the origin of the coconut is the subject of debate. By studying the coconut, researchers have discovered two distinct sub-species – one originating in the Indian Ocean, the other in the Pacific Ocean.
The coconut was spread across the tropics, by seafaring people as well as the coconut itself. Coconut fruit are light, buoyant and highly water resistant, and can disperse significant distances via marine currents. Specimens have been collected from the sea as far north as Norway. Coconuts have been in the Caribbean and the Atlantic coasts of Africa and South America for less than 500 years, but their presence on the Pacific coast of South America predates Christopher Columbus's arrival in the Americas.
Today coconuts are part of the daily diet of many people.
The coconut we buy in the store does not resemble the coconut you find growing on a coconut palm. A freshly harvested coconut has three layers. The outermost layer, which is smooth and greenish color, is called the exocarp. The next layer is the fibrous husk, or mesocarp, which ultimately surrounds the hard woody layer called the endocarp. The endocarp surrounds the seed.
Generally speaking, when you buy a coconut at the supermarket the exocarp and the mesocarp are removed and what you purchase at the store the endocarp. The shell has three germination pores (stoma) or "eyes" that are clearly visible on its outside surface once the husk is removed.
The endosperm is suspended within the coconut water. As development continues, cellular layers of endosperm deposit along the walls of the coconut, becoming the edible coconut "meat".
Although coconut meat contains less fat than many seeds and nuts, it is noted for its high amount of medium-chain saturated fat. Like most nut meats, coconut meat contains less sugar and more protein than fruits such as bananas, apples and oranges.
The sticky point of coconut consumption is the fat. That 1 cup of grated coconut packs 26.8 grams of total fat with 23.8 grams saturated which means that it is 80% fat.
1 cup of grated fresh coconut contains a good range of B vitamins except B12, folic acid, and vitamin C and E. Coconut is a good source of minerals including calcium, copper, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, phosphorous, selenium and zinc.
Coconut oil got a bad rap has being unhealthy because of its high saturated fat content (mostly from the soybean growers but that’s another story), it is now known that the fat in coconut oil is different from most other fats.
All fats and oils are composed of molecules called fatty acids. There are two methods of classifying fatty acids; one based on saturation the other on the length of the fatty acid chain. You have saturated fats, monounsaturated fats, and polyunsaturated fats. Coconut oil is a saturated fat composed predominately of medium-chain fatty acids (MCFA).
98% of fats and oils in our diets, whether they are saturated or unsaturated or come from animals or plants, are composed of long-chain fatty acids (LCFA).
The length of the fatty acid is extremely important because our bodies metabolize each fatty acid differently depending on its size. So the effects of MCFA in coconut oil are distinctly different from those of Long Chain Fatty Acids (LCFA) more commonly found in our foods.
MCFA are very different from LCFA. They do not have a negative effect on cholesterol and help to protect against heart disease. There are only a very few good dietary sources of MCFA. By far the best sources are from coconut and palm kernel oils.
Culinary Uses of Coconut
The various parts of the coconut have a number of culinary uses. The nut provides oil for cooking. The white, fleshy part of the seed, the coconut meat, is used fresh or dried in cooking, especially in confections and desserts. Desiccated coconut or coconut milk is added to curries and other savory dishes. Coconut flour has also been developed for use in baking. Dried coconut chips are a common snack item. The term coconut butter is used to describe solidified coconut oil, but has also been adopted as a name by certain specialty products made of coconut milk solids or puréed coconut meat and oil. Coconut milk, coconut cream, and coconut oil all come from mature coconuts.
Spicy coconut chutneys are a favorite meal accompaniment to a South Indian dinner. Coconut milk lends its richness to many curries served throughout Southeast Asia.
Coconut in its mature stage has a rich, nutty flavor and chewy texture.
Purchase only extra virgin coconut oil available in health food markets. Though it may be more expensive than the refined oil it contains no trans-fatty acids. Coconut oil is a very stable cooking oil, able to withstand the heat of stir frying, light frying, and baking and has a high smoke point. Another advantage of coconut oil is its amazing shelf life. Stored for a year, unrefrigerated, the oil showed no signs of rancidity. Store at room temperature. When refrigerated, the oil becomes completely solid.
Coconut water contains sugar, dietary fiber, proteins, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals, and provides electrolyte balance. It is consumed as a refreshing drink throughout the tropics, and is gaining popularity as a sport drink. Coconut water can also be fermented to produce coconut vinegar.
Coconut milk is obtained by pressing the grated coconut and extracting the juice or by passing hot water or milk through grated coconut. It has a fat content around 17%. When refrigerated and left to set, coconut cream will rise to the top and separate from the milk.
Toddy and nectar
The sap derived from the flower clusters of the coconut can also be consumed as a liquid drink or fermented to become palm wine. The sap can also be reduced by boiling to create a sweet syrup or candy or reduced further to yield palm sugar or jaggery.
Heart of palm
The buds of adult plants are edible, and are known as heart of palm. They are considered a rare delicacy, as harvesting the buds kills the palms. Hearts of palm are eaten in salads, sometimes called "millionaire's salad". Hearts of palm are also marinated in lemony brine, canned, and sold at supermarkets, Asian markets, and gourmet groceries in many countries.
Purchasing and Storing
A full-sized coconut weighs about 3.2 lb.
Start the selection process by lifting and shaking the coconut to make sure it is heavy with plenty of water inside. If the coconut seems too light and you cannot hear water inside when you shake it, the nut may have a thin crack which could have caused the loss its water or may have begun to mold.
Carefully inspect the outer shell and the eyes to make sure there are no cracks or punctures. A damaged coconut will rot quickly once air reaches the inside of the nut. Examine the three eyes to be sure there is no mold forming there.
A fully mature coconut will be dark brown in color. Those with a lighter brown shell have not yet reached their full ripeness but will still be tasty. Coconut milk pressed from the lighter colored coconuts will not be as thick and creamy as the darker coconuts, but can lend itself to tasty soups and curries.
A mature coconut, unopened, can be stored at room temperature for about three or four months. Once opened, fresh coconut can be stored in the refrigerator in a plastic bag for only a few days. Freeze the coconut for longer storage.
A medium-sized coconut will contain about 1 cup of coconut juice. When grated, the coconut will yield about 3 to 4 cups of nutmeat.
Young coconuts are sold in the husk. You can recognize a young coconut by its pale, almost ivory color and by its conical shape at the top. Look for these in the refrigerated section or produce section of some health food and Asian markets. Young coconuts are valued for their juice, but the coconut meat inside, which is often sweeter than that of the mature coconut, is completely edible and has a softer, more delicate consistency than a mature coconut. The very young coconut meat is almost jelly-like and can be eaten with a spoon.
The liquid inside a young coconut is plentiful, sweet, and nourishing. Use a strong, sharp knife to whack off the top of the coconut, poke a hole in the top, and insert a straw. You'll be surprised at just how much thirst-quenching, delightfully sweet liquid is inside, though some varieties of coconut palm do not produce a sweet-tasting juice.
Store young coconuts in the refrigerator.
Processed coconut when packaged for retail sale includes some moisture, added sugar and propylene glycol, a mold retardant. Most supermarkets have the sweetened variety only. Look for the unsweetened grated or shredded coconut meat at health food or Asian markets. Dried coconut can keep at room temperature for several months if sealed in plastic bags.
Canned coconut milk is available in most grocery stores; however, the total fat content can vary considerably from 2 grams to 17 grams. The cans with 2 grams of fat will be quite watery and taste diluted. For good flavor, choose a coconut milk with 8 to 9 grams of fat for its excellent consistency and richness in taste.
Those with the highest fat are actually coconut cream from the first pressing that offers a thicker and creamier liquid. Once opened, canned coconut milk must be stored in the refrigerator and will keep only a few days.
You can make coconut milk at home too. Put the meat of a freshly grated coconut into a bowl (if a little of the brown shell clings to the meat don’t worry) and cover with 2 cups of boiling water. Set it aside for 10 to 15 minutes, and then strain off the coconut milk through a mesh strainer or cheese cloth into another bowl, pressing to remove all the liquid. Using your hands, squeeze through the fingers any remaining coconut milk from the grated pieces. You now have a thick, richly flavored coconut cream for making creamy coconut desserts.
A second pressing of the grated pulp with another 2 cups of boiling water will produce a thinner but tasty coconut milk excellent for soups. Some people toss away the coconut pulp after making coconut milk, but the coconut still has nutritional value and can be added to cooked dishes.
Another method of preparing coconut milk involves cutting the coconut into 1-inch pieces and adding an equal amount of hot, but not boiling, water in the blender. Blend at high speed, stopping occasionally to scrape down the sides, until you have an almost smooth puree. Strain if desired.
If you want pure white shreds of coconut, peel off the brown skin. Use a coarse hand grater or the grater blade of a food processor to shred the coconut into a bowl. If you want really fine shreds, use a microplane grater.
Put freshly grated, dried grated, or shredded coconut into a dry skillet over medium heat. Standing by to stir frequently, heat and stir the coconut until it reaches an even, golden brown color. Remove from the skillet immediately to prevent burning.
Opening the Coconut
In the tropical countries where coconuts are eaten almost every day they are cracked open with one strong blow from a thick, heavy-bladed knife. Since the average home cook doesn’t have a lot of experience handling a machete or cleaver other methods are suggested.
First, use a tool with a sharp point such as an ice pick, a hammer and nail, or even a corkscrew to poke through the two softest of the three "eyes" at one end the coconut. Drain the coconut juice into a glass or cup.
Next heat the oven to 350 F and bake the coconut on a pan for 15 to 20 minutes. Remove the coconut and put it into a large paper or plastic bag. Hold the open end closed while giving the coconut inside a strong blow with a hammer. The bag prevents the shell from breaking off and flying all over the kitchen.
NOTE: Do not attempt to heat the coconut before removing the juice. An exploding coconut can cause damage to your oven.
Once the coconut shell is in several pieces, use a small firm paring knife to remove the coconut meat from the shell. If you prefer not to eat the brown skin, use a vegetable peeler to remove it.
Be aware, however, that you'll be tossing away a good source of fiber.
Weird Coconut Facts
• Every bit of the coconut is used. As a result, coconuts are called the “Tree of Life” and can produce drink, fiber, food, fuel, utensils, musical instruments, and much more.
• When intra-venous (IV) solution was in short supply, doctors during World War II and Vietnam used coconut water in substitution of IV solutions.
• Botanically, the coconut palm is not a tree since there is no bark, no branches, or secondary growth. A coconut palm is a woody perennial monocotyledon with the trunk being the stem.
• Coconuts grow from the center of the fronds, close to the trunk. Unique to the coconut palm, each tree blooms thirteen times a year and coconut’s in all stages of growth are on the tree at the same time.
• It takes 11 -12 months for the coconut to mature.
Growing a coconut
To begin the growing process, purchase a coconut with its husk completely intact. Just like sprouting any seeds and legumes, the coconut must be soaked in water, only longer, two or three days.
Next, prepare a pot that is large enough and deep enough for the coconut by putting big pieces of gravel or stones in the bottom to allow for good drainage. Add about two inches of sandy soil, then set the coconut on the soil with the pointed or bud end up. Add more soil until it covers about half the coconut. Then set the pot in a warm place such as a sunny window, near a warm oven, or on a radiator.
The next step requires patience and diligence. Pour warm water over the coconut husk every day, making sure it does not dry out. The sprouting process is very slow, sometimes taking six months or longer. Until the sprout appears, the coconut is receiving its nourishment from the white meat inside. The coconut water within provides the nut with all of its moisture requirements.
For a sprout to appear it must first pierce through one of the soft spots, often called eyes, of the coconut's hard inner shell and finally emerge from the large fibrous outer shell. When white roots begin to grow out, in about a year, the coconut can be planted in a large tub.
Coconuts planted at home are unlikely to produce a coconut.
Updated September 14, 2012