Coconut (Dừa)
Consider the coconut (and the milk) Emilio Labrador

While testing Thai coconut recipes for “On This Thai Island, Coconut Goes Into Everything”, we realized that there’s a lot of room for variation in terms of texture, flavor, and consistency of coconut milk. Each has a place in Thai cooking, and it turns out, there’s often more than one way to get you there. Here’s a guide to the coconut products you’ll need to make any kind of milk, water, or cream used in most Thai-style recipes.

Young Coconut

Tender young coconuts are the source of sweet and soothing coconut water. Occasionally, young coconuts are sold still covered in their heavy green skin, though more often you will find them shaved down to a more retainable shape. Give the pointed tip a few good whacks with the corner of a cleaver to get at the juice, then either drink it, or use it to make the sweet and chewy Thai confection, khanom hawng. Once drained of its water, break the young coconut open completely to get to the thin layer of soft and custardy flesh within.

Mature Brown Coconut

These take a lot more persistence to crack than their younger kin, but they boast a thicker layer of the sweet inner flesh, which is ideal for making coconut milk or cream. Grate it using the grater attachment of a food processor, a box grater, or a table-top rotary grater designed specifically for coconuts. There is some coconut water inside mature coconuts, but not nearly as much. Soak the grated coconut in water, then strain, squeezing well to extract your own coconut cream. Repeat for the thinner coconut “milk”.

Frozen Grated Coconut

For quicker coconut milk or cream, look for bags of frozen grated pulp in Asian, Latin, or African markets. The texture of the frozen grated coconut meat does not have the same fluffy, tender texture as the fresh stuff, but when thawed and soaked to extract the cream and milk, the convenient frozen product is an excellent substitute.

Unsweetened Dried Coconut

Coconut milk can also be extracted from dried coconut; look for a high-quality, unsweetened, medium-coarsely grated types. The shavings should be soft and flexible, rather than brittle, and they should smell coconutty and sweet, without a hint of staleness. When making coconut milk with dried coconut, use very hot water and soak for at least 10 minutes, or until cool enough to touch, before straining.

Canned Coconut Milk

Canned coconut milk, like the Thai Chaokoh brand, is an excellent quick option for adding to curries, soups, and desserts. Bear in mind that the canned product is much heavier than home-made, so lift the thick, fatty layer from the top and add back only what you need to give your dish its proper richness.