I’ve cracked more than my fair share of fresh coconuts, and tried a number of ways to open them, including doing as the monkeys do and lifting them high above my head and crashing them to the ground. Which I don’t recommend, unless you aren’t wearing pants (like monkeys do) because your pants will get all wet. (Like mine did.) In baking, I tend to use dried coconut (also called desiccated coconut) for cookies and infusing in custards and so forth, as it tends to have a more concentrated flavor than the fresh and less moisture, which can alter a recipe.
I primarily use fresh coconut meat (the kind extracted here) for garnishing, ice creams, sorbets, and even cocktails. There are a number of devices, including wooden boards with jagged teeth and rotary devices that might be worth it if you are doing a lot of coconut. But since I only crack one coconut open every few months or so, I don’t know if I want to give valuable cabinet space to something I would only use occasionally.
You can usually find fresh coconuts in stores that cater to Indian, Mexican, and Asian cooks, as well as well-stocked supermarkets. When buying a coconut, lift the coconut and give it a good shake; there should be plenty of liquid sloshing around inside. (Note that the liquid isn’t coconut milk, as some believe; it’s coconut water. Coconut milk is made by blending water with the meat.) Also make sure there is no mold on the outside, where the eyes are. Some folks like the remove the fibers from the outside of the coconut before cracking it, which you may wish to do over a sink as it’s somewhat messy.
To open the coconut, use the dull backside of a cleaver (make sure the sharp blade end is not facing the coconut, and that you are hitting the coconut with the back of the cleaver) and hold the coconut over a bowl. Tap the coconut firmly down the equator with the back of the cleaver, turning the coconut several times as you rap, until you hear (and see) it crack open.
If you don’t want to use a cleaver, wrap the coconut in a towel – one you don’t mind getting wet – and use a hammer to break it open.
Pry the two sides apart and drain the liquid in the bowl. (It can be strained and enjoyed as a beverage.)
Put the coconut halves on a shelf in a preheated 400ºF (200ºC) for 20 minutes, which will help separated the meat from the shell. When the coconut halves are cool, use a flat-head screwdriver wedged in between the meat and shell to pry them apart.
Take a vegetable peeler and remove the skin of the meat, then grate or grind the coconut meat, as you wish. For decoration, you can take a vegetable peeler and make thin strips, or grate the coconut with a metal grater into shreds.
To toast the coconut, spread the shredded coconut on an unlined baking sheet and bake in a preheated 350ºF (180ºC) oven for 12 – 18 minutes, stirring a few times while it’s cooking, so it toasts evenly. Thinner strips will toast more quickly than thicker ones.
Related Links and Recipes
Homemade Coconut Milk (Always Order Dessert)