Coconut Milk: From Tree to Can

We’re so pleased to welcome Suzanne Kahn, a history grad student and author of the food blog, An Overdetermined Life, to share this post on making coconut milk at home.

 When I started writing about how coconut milk gets made, I envisioned a Mr. Rogers-like adventure through a coconut processing plant. I did not picture myself standing in my kitchen at 11:00 o’clock at night with a coconut and a hammer.

But here’s the thing. The more research I did about how coconut milk gets from the coconut to the can, the simpler it all seemed. In fact, I learned, it’s so simple that home cooks can and do make it themselves. To really understand how coconut milk gets into all those cans at the store and in your Blue Apron boxes, I decided, I would have to do it myself.

In retrospect, it’s not particularly surprising that making coconut milk is simple. Coconut is a vital food for much of the world’s population. Despite the difficulty of opening one (hence the hammer), once inside, you find nutritious food and reliably potable water. Before setting out on long sea voyages, crews used to pack coconuts as an all-in-one food and water supply. The outside of a coconut is also more than useful—whole, it serves as a flotation device; its outside shell can be burned as charcoal; its fiber turned into rope. The coconut’s many uses have been known since ancient times. This means you don’t need much fancy equipment to make coconut milk (or other products)—although, of course, electricity does speed up the process.

Now, I would never suggest that making coconut milk is something you must—or really even should—do. There are plenty of perfectly delicious cans of coconut milk out there. But, I will say this. If you are someone with more hardware than flatware in your home, someone who doesn’t have a lot of kitchen appliances but does have a blender for the occasional margarita party, making your own coconut milk is an adventure that you could embark on.

So, here’s how it works—in your kitchen, or in the factory that’s making coconut milk to sell in cans:

First, you have to get in to the coconut. This is not the easiest task. Off the tree, a coconut has a thick husk, the part that gets peeled away to make rope. There are now industrial de-husking machines, but traditionally the de-husking was done by smashing the coconut into a spear anchored in the ground. (Try not to wince as you watch people do this on YouTube. The spear comes very, very close to their wrists.)

By the time you or I buy a coconut, the husk has generally been removed. This leaves a thick, hard, outer shell. In factories, they have whirring blades to cut through them. In your kitchen, you whack it with a hammer, a lot. Eventually it cracks open. (Note: If you are doing this at home, before you crack a coconut open it’s worth draining out the water, which puts the coconut water you buy in stores to shame. To get at it, just use a nail to put two holes in the coconut and pour.)

Once the coconut is open you have to pry out the white meat with a knife and then peel off the final layer of thin brown skin. This is where I started to wish I had factory-quality equipment to help me out.

Next, the meat then gets shredded. In a factory, the meat gets fed into a machine and comes out the other end looking a lot like the shredded coconut you can buy in bags in a store. The shredded meat then gets mixed with hot water. In your kitchen, you can combine these steps and throw chunks of coconut meat into a blender with 2 cups of water.

Finally, the coconut pulp gets strained through a mesh cloth (you can use cheese cloth or a cloth napkin). You end up with rich coconut cream and finely shredded coconut meat, which can be strained a second time to get a thinner coconut milk often used in soups. And that’s it. After you get into the coconut the whole process can’t take more than 5 minutes.

The coconut milk, left alone, behaves exactly like coconut milk in a can: it separates. You get a thicker cream on top and a more watery substance below. Here’s where factory-made coconut milk is different from what I made, many factories add emulsifiers to prevent separation. In some recipes, though, you want to be able to scoop that separated cream off the top of a can so you may want to check for coconut milk without emulsifiers. When choosing a coconut milk, you might also check the water content, as many factories thin their coconut milk with water or the second, thinner round of coconut milk. One way to check how much cream is in a can is by shaking the can and listening. You don’t want the milk to slosh too much.

Coconut milk is a key ingredient in many South Asian and Caribbean cuisines as well as in the cuisines of the Pacific Islands and Brazil. Americans discovered coconut milk relatively recently and largely through these cuisines. Increasingly, Americans have also embraced coconut milk as a dairy alternative. There’s a lot you can do with a can of coconut milk, which is why I generally keep one on hand, but if you happen to get your hands on a coconut and a hammer you might also try making your own.

You’ll know you’re making it pretty much the same way people have for centuries. And, in the words of my boyfriend, mid-hammer whack, “This is the most fun I’ve ever had in the kitchen.”

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suzanne

by Suzanne
Suzanne Kahn is a history grad student and the author of the food blog, An Overdetermined Life.