By Fred Decker

The ingredients you use for baking run a pretty wide range, from necessary but not especially virtuous – fats and refined sugars, for example – to the unquestionably healthy, like high-fiber whole grains or nuts. The only knock against an ingredient like dried coconut, for example, is that it might have sweeteners or preservatives in it. You can avoid that pretty easily by drying your own at home, whether or not you have a dehydrator.

Coconuts
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Get Into the Coconut

The hard part of working with fresh coconut is just getting past its hard shell. You should start by tapping a couple of holes into the nut's "eyes" with a clean nail or drill bit, and pouring out the coconut water. You'll want to save that, as it's a refreshing drink on its own or as part of a smoothie. Also, if the water tastes "off," the coconut might have unpleasant flavors as well. Better to get another one, before you take the trouble to dry it. Once the coconut is drained, rest it on a wadded up towel and strike it sharply a few times with a hammer. The shell should crack in several places. Once it does, peel it away from the nut. The nut itself might break in half in the process, but that's fine.

Prep the Nut

Out of its shell, the coconut still has a layer of brown husk over its outside. This is completely edible, so removing it is a matter of personal preference. If you want snowy-white shreds to decorate your baked goods, strip it off with a regular vegetable peeler. If you don't care about the appearance, leave it on for extra fiber. If you're going to use a food processor to shred the coconut, cut it into strips that will fit down the processor's feed chute. If you'll be working by hand, cut the nut into pieces that will fit your hand easily.

Shred the Flesh

You can make your shreds any size you want, but you'll need a relatively small grater to match the size of the commercially shredded product. Set your grater on a parchment-lined sheet pan or in a mixing bowl, then shred the coconut piece by piece. If you're using a food processor, select a disc that will make fine shreds and feed chunks of fresh coconut down the feed tube a few at a time. If the bowl fills up before you're done, turn out the shredded coconut into a bowl and then continue.

Dehydrate Your Shreds

Sprinkle your freshly shredded coconut evenly across your dehydrator trays, making a loose single layer on each one. Try to avoid letting it mound or clump together. Depending on the size of your shreds and the gaps on your trays, you might need to use mesh screens on your trays to keep the shreds from falling through. Once done, assemble your dehydrator and turn it to its fruit setting, which is usually 130 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit. It should take only two to four hours for your shreds to be completely dry, though it can be longer if you're in a humid environment. The finished shreds should feel dry and slightly brittle to the touch.

If you don't have a dehydrator, spread the coconut evenly across one or more parchment-lined sheet pans. Heat your oven to its lowest temperature, usually about 150 degrees, and slide in the sheets of coconut. They'll take two to three hours to dry completely, and you'll need to stir them periodically. Alternatively, you can dry-toast the shreds at 250 degrees for as little as 10 to 15 minutes for a similar result, but you'll need to watch it like a hawk to keep it from browning.

Pack Them Away

Once your coconut shreds are dry, let them cool thoroughly to room temperature and then pack them loosely in airtight bags or jars for a week or so. When they first come out of the dehydrator, your shreds won't all have the same moisture level, so this resting time or "conditioning" gives the coconut an opportunity to even out.

After the week is up, pack it for long storage in airtight jars and containers, or into vacuum-seal bags or zipper seal bags with as much air as possible squeezed out. It'll keep for several months in the pantry, and up to a year or two in the freezer if well-sealed.

A Few Alternatives

While you're drying coconut, you might want to make a few things besides shreds. Larger pieces, up to 3/8 inch in thickness, still dry pretty readily and make a good, portable carry-along food for hiking or other activities. If you shave the coconut thinly with a vegetable peeler, you can make thin slices to go into your favorite trail mix or to toast for coconut chips. You can dry them in much the same way – thin slices take about as long as shreds, thicker pieces can take up to an extra hour or so – and then condition them for a week or so before storing them.