Though fresh coconut is delicious, it's literally a hard nut to crack. A dark brown, hairy husks with three indented "eyes" encases the white coconut meat and the pale white juice inside.
Shredded coconut is fresh coconut that’s been shredded and dried. The size ranges from fine threads to coarse flakes, and moisture levels vary, too, despite the fact that it’s dried. Shredded coconut is available both sweetened (typically found in the supermarket’s baking aisle) and unsweetened (more often found in health food stores). Sweetened shredded coconut tends to be moister than unsweetened, and it’s a great ingredient for desserts and baked goods. Use unsweetened shredded coconut in savory dishes.
Flaked coconut is similar to shredded but comes in wider, flatter pieces. It’s available sweetened or unsweetened, and it makes a perfect garnish, thanks to its crunchy texture.
Desiccated coconut is dehydrated and very finely ground. It’s drier and more powdery than shredded coconut, so it’s great for adding pure coconut flavor without changing the texture of your food. When shopping for desiccated coconut, be aware that some producers label their shredded coconut as desiccated, no matter the size of the pieces, because the word means dried or dehydrated.
Available year round, coconuts are in peak season October through December. Choose a coconut that's heavy for its size. Its three "eyes" should be dry and it should slosh when shaken. Avoid coconuts that are gray in color or that show wet staining, a sign that the shell is deeply cracked. A cracked outer shell is fine as long as the coconut sloshes and doesn’t look wet.
Serious tools are needed to crack a coconut. Set the point of a Phillips screwdriver in one of the three "eyes" and hit it with a hammer. Repeat with another eye and pour the juice into a bowl. Use the hammer to break the coconut into pieces. Then use a sturdy knife to pry the meat from the shell.
To toast coconut: Spread grated coconut on a baking sheet and toast in a 350°F oven until it’s a rich golden-brown, 5 to 10 minutes. Stir every few minutes so the coconut toasts evenly, and watch carefully, as it can go from toasted to burnt very quickly. Cool on the baking sheet before using.
Grated coconut keeps in the refrigerator for about one week, or in the freezer for about three months.