I couldn’t tell you when, exactly, the bookmark bar I use to digitally dog-ear recipes I want to cook became overrun with coconut milk. Every week I scan through the list of titles, planning my meals and grocery runs accordingly. And every week, it seems, I find myself picking up a can or two of coconut milk, not just for curries and soups but also in the service of culturally free-flowing dishes like Hetty McKinnon’s Turmeric and Coconut-Braised Cabbage With Chickpeas, Kay Chun’s Coconut-Miso Salmon Curry, or Sara Deseran’s Coconut Horchata.
As it turns out, I’m not the only person buying up countless cans: Sales of coconut milk are skyrocketing in North America, driven in part by what researchers describe as a growing demand for healthy, plant-based beverages, an increase in lactose and dairy allergies, and consumer interest in so-called “exotic” flavors such as those used in Asian cuisine, including coconut. (Never mind the fact that coconut milk is widely used not only in South and Southeast Asia but also across the Caribbean, Latin America, and East and West Africa. But hey, leave it to the forecasters to generalize.)
With coconut milk sales expected to increase, and presumably more coconut-milk-using recipes expected to land in my bookmarks, I found myself wondering about this so-called-exotic ingredient. What is coconut milk, really? Where does it come from? And will someone please help me explain the difference between coconut milk, light coconut milk, coconut cream, and cream of coconut? Armed with a million questions, I set out to learn more.
Coconut milk: What is it?
First things first: Coconut milk is the liquid extracted from the meat of a mature coconut. Sounds simple enough, but sometimes people confuse the liquid splashing around inside a coconut shell with coconut milk. This is not so: That liquid is coconut water, a delicious coconut byproduct in its own right, but not the same as coconut milk.
How is coconut milk made?
The extraction process is straightforward: Crack open a coconut, use a sharp tool to scrape the white meat into shredded bits, add a little hot water to soften it, and squeeze, almost as if you were…milking the coconut. This can be done by hand: The Thai chef and cookbook author Pailin Chongchitnant has a great video showing the old-fashioned extraction technique in Thailand, which involves the use of a special bench with a scraper known as a “rabbit.” Modern industrial methods follow a similar technique, but at scale.
In parts of the world where coconuts abound, you might be lucky enough to get your hands on ultra-fresh “raw” coconut milk. But most commercial coconut milk is processed before packaging to make it easier to export. That can involve adding stabilizers or sweeteners (more on that in a minute) and, if the milk is being canned, homogenization and heat treatment. Or if it’s going into a carton, it will go through ultra-high-temperature processing.
What kinds of coconuts are we talking about here?
Most of the coconut milk you find in stores is made from mature coconuts (the brown, hairy kind), because the older fruit has more fat and a deeper coconut flavor. Young coconuts— the whitish or pale-green ones you might see with a straw sticking out of the top at a tropical resort — are generally better for providing light, sweet coconut water.
Okay, so what’s in a can of coconut milk?
If you open a can of coconut milk without shaking it up first, you may notice a few different kinds of coconut stuff inside. “Within a single can, you can have two or three distinct layers of coconut, which is even more noticeable if the can is cold,” says Cheetie Kumar, chef and owner of Garland, an Indian-Asian-Southern restaurant in Raleigh, North Carolina. The top layer in a can of coconut milk is often a semisolid, creamy white mass, while beneath it there’s a thinner, more watery layer.
Much like the cream rising to the top of fresh cow’s milk, that thick top layer is coconut cream, the fattiest and most flavorful part of coconut milk. (You can recombine the components by shaking it like you would a vinaigrette.) If you were to cook coconut cream slowly so all the water evaporates, you’d wind up with coconut oil.
That said, the layers aren’t always so defined. Some brands use more stabilizers and emulsifiers to prevent separation, and most recipes don’t differentiate between using coconut cream and coconut milk. All of which leads us to our next point, about the sometimes confusing language on coconut milk labels.
So if all coconut milk already contains coconut cream, what’s the difference between cans labeled “coconut milk” and those called “coconut cream?”
Great question. A can of coconut cream contains only that rich, fatty top layer; it’s sometimes called for in dessert recipes. But the chefs I spoke to all recommend buying coconut milk and not cream, because you get more control and more options — if you need just the cream, you can scoop it off the top, or you can shake it up and have a more general-use coconut milk.
What about the stuff called “cream of coconut”?
The best known cream of coconut brand is Coco Lopez. Made in Puerto Rico, it’s a thick, heavily sweetened, highly processed coconut milk product meant for cocktails (i.e., pina coladas). While tasty, cream of coconut is not a substitute for coconut milk or cream!
Okay, then what’s “light” coconut milk?
Light coconut milk is basically the watery part, with all or most of the creamy fat scraped off. It’s not a great choice if you’re trying to impart a rich coconut flavor into a dish. “Never buy light coconut milk for anything — I don’t care if you’re on a diet!” says Chongchitnant. “You might as well add water, because all the flavor in coconut milk is in its fat. So when you remove the fat, you remove the flavor.”
How about all those coconut beverages I see in the refrigerator section?
Nope, also not substitutes for coconut milk. Coconut beverages like this or this might have a vague trace of coconut milk, but usually all the fat has been removed, which is why they taste like water.
Should I buy sweetened or unsweetened coconut milk?
Although coconut milk contains a hint of natural sweetness, it’s best bought unsweetened. If you’re making a dessert or drink on the sweet side, you can always add your own sugar — but you can’t take sugar out of a product it’s already mixed into.
Right. So what should I look for when shopping for coconut milk?
“As few ingredients as possible,” says Natalia Pereira, chef and owner of the Brazilian restaurant Woodspoon in Los Angeles. The label should ideally list just coconut and water — no added sugars, no unpronounceable thickeners or stabilizers. (A passable third ingredient is a bit of guar gum, which helps with texture.)
Canned brands are more widely available in the U.S., though Chongchitnant prefers the kind sold in cartons, as it’s been processed at a higher temperature for less time, resulting in a better flavor. And while most brands sold here don’t specify the percentage of coconut to water, a quick glance at the fat and calorie count will give you an indication of how rich a given can is: The more calories, the less it’s watered down.
As for brands, Aroy-D and Chaokoh (both from Thailand) make high-quality cans and cartons. Thai Kitchen (which also offers an organic line) and the Whole Foods organic 365 brand are also good.
How should I store it?
After opening, store any unused coconut milk in a clean, clear container for about five days. Don’t leave it in the can or carton, which makes it harder to tell if something has gone off. It’s natural for separation to occur here; simply shake to re-emulsify.
It is possible to freeze coconut milk, but its texture will be grainy when it thaws. This might be fine if you’re cooking a dish like a curry with a lot of other flavors to mask it, but probably won’t work for more delicate desserts or light soups.
Better yet, if you’re left with a small amount of coconut milk kicking around after a recipe, try one of these: Whisk in a bit of sugar or honey, a few sprigs of lavender, and a pinch of salt to freeze into popsicles (per Pereira); add it to smoothies or coffee with a bit of sugar (per Chongchitnant); or stir it into rice, lentils, soups and stews (per Kumar). “Anywhere you might finish something with butter, milk, or cream, try coconut milk,” says Kumar.
What to cook with coconut milk
Coconut milk is incredibly versatile and can be used in both sweet and savory applications. In largely dairy-free Thai cuisine, explains Chongchitnant, it’s used to add creaminess and fat to countless dishes, from sauces and dressings to curries and stews to puddings and dessert soups. Brazilian native Pereira uses it to add richness to moqueca (a seafood stew), desserts like flan and ice cream, and blended drinks for body and texture. Kumar’s family is from northern India, where cow’s milk is more common than coconut, but she fell in love with its flavor as a professional chef in the American South, where she now uses it to cook everything from pilaf-style rice to slow-braised lamb or beef to sweet caramels. “Coconut milk can tolerate a lot of different spices and complexities of flavor, takes acid so well, and brings up the fruity nuances of everything it’s involved with,” she says. “I can’t really think of an application where I wouldn’t use it.”
Here are a few more recipe ideas to get you started:
Pailin Chongchitnant’s Coconut Rice Pudding with Longans
Pailin Chongchitnant’s Panang Curry
Natalia Periera’s Moqueca
Brazilian Kitchen Abroad’s Batida de Coco
Cheetie Kumar’s Shrimp & Green Beans with Coconut-Lentil Chili Crisp
Cheetie Kumar’s Gingery Carrots with Pistachios and Coconut-Buttermilk Sauce
Meera Sohda’s Sri Lankan Dal With Coconut and Lime Kale
Leslie Enston’s Sos Pwa Nwa and Mayi Moulen (Black Bean Sauce and Cornmeal)
Anna Watson Carl’s Coconut Pistachio Semifreddo