The Right Coconut Milk for Your Recipes

Some people use coconut milk as a dairy-free beverage option. Others cook with it when making vegan recipes as we did when turning a traditional butter cookie recipe into a vegan version. Here’s how to choose the right coconut milk variety for any recipe you might be making.

three kinds of coconut milk vertical
Photo credit: Leah Ingram.

What is coconut milk?

Coconut milk is just the flesh of the coconut that’s been blended with water and then strained, leaving a thick, creamy, white milk. It can come in many different varieties.

Coconut milk is most commonly used as a cream replacement in dairy-free baking, as it results in a creamy texture for just about everything. It can be made into a Whole30 whipped cream, a creamy smoothie, a delicious dairy-free alfredo sauce and so much more.

However, there are a lot of varieties on the market. You’ll need to choose from canned coconut milk, full-fat, low-fat, carton and packaged coconut cream. Read on below to learn about the best choices for your dairy-free recipes.

Coconut milk vs coconut cream

Coconut cream is made the same way as coconut milk, but more water has been removed to leave a very thick white cream. This can be purchased in a can and will be soft, or a box and will be hard. 

Coconut milk is normally liquid at room temperature, though it will firm up in the fridge. The thick white cream is the richest part of the blend and contains the most fat. The better the quality of the product, the more cream will be in the can.

Tips for using coconut milk

There are a few things you need to know when using coconut milk in your recipes. For example, some brands of canned coconut milk will be so thick that the coconut cream and the water have separated in the can. Drain the water and use only the coconut cream on top for your recipes.

In addition, most canned products are thickened with guar gum that acts as a stabilizer. Avoid canned coconut milk with added sugars, though, if you’re looking to use coconut milk as a healthy option.

Also, liquid coconut milk is great in any baked good, energizing smoothie or curry recipe. “I love using coconut milk as a substitute for dairy milk or cream in any recipe,” says Gena Lazcano who writes the blog Ginger Casa. “It’s quick and easy and doesn’t have an overwhelming coconut flavor. Plus, it adds depth to soups.”

We also love using coconut milk in soups, especially our butternut squash curry soup. Recipe to come.

Types of coconut milk

There are many different kinds of coconut milk, just as there are gluten-free flour and other allergy-friendly baking ingredients. As such, each type of coconut milk has a different purpose, use and reaction when baking. So keep the following in mind as you consider using coconut milk in your recipes.

In a can

As stated, there are different kinds of canned coconut milk, and the contents often depend on the brand.

  • Full-fat coconut milk: This is soft at room temperature and often hardens in the fridge. With many brands, you’ll want to open it, drain the water from the can and only use the thick coconut cream for your recipes.
  • Hack: Store the canned coconut milk in the fridge upside down. When you open it, the water is on top and easy to pour out as the cream is hard.
  • Light coconut milk: This variation has been watered down and is much more liquid. You can use it in most overnight oats and chia pudding recipes, but it won’t work for whipped cream as it doesn’t solidify well.

In a carton

This type of coconut milk is liquid at room temperature and in the fridge. It’s most similar to almond milk in the sense that it’s pourable and made for things like smoothies or cereals. It will also have the most ingredients added to it.

thai kitchen coconut milk vertical
Photo credit: Leah Ingram.

Name brands to consider

Each brand has a slightly different composition of ingredients. This means that the texture of each will be different. So, choose accordingly, depending on what you need it for.

  • Cha’s Coconut Milk: The coconut cream and water tend to separate in this brand’s coconut milk, making it easy to use. The coconut cream is often a bit flakey and super concentrated.
  • Thai Kitchen: This brand’s coconut milk is a bit thinner, and the cream and water are usually not separated, so it’s not great for whipping. You can buy it in a box, carton or can.
  • Native Forest Coconut Milk: This brand is a favorite for whipped cream because it is super thick and has lots of coconut cream.

Keep in mind that many stores also sell their own brand of coconut milk. We’re always had good luck with the store-brand version. And it’s an affordable option if you’re on a budget.

How to use canned coconut milk

Canned coconut milk can often be used interchangeably with heavy cream in recipes. Just make sure to use a full-fat version.

It is commonly used in overnight oats, to make chia pudding recipes indulgent and as a whipped topping on recipes like brownies. If you need to add richness to anything, you can use coconut milk.

How to store coconut milk

Once opened, you must store it in the fridge. Know that a carton of coconut milk will maintain its liquid texture.

Once opened, you should use up the coconut milk before 10 days have passed. After that point, even with it being refrigerated, it may not still be good enough to use. So, plan to batch cook your recipes with coconut milk so you don’t have to end up throwing any away.

However, if you put canned coconut milk in the refrigerator after opening — especially the full-fat kind — it will thicken up and sometimes become hard. This also goes for recipes with coconut milk as the base. Recipes like chocolate ganache or caramel sauce will thicken in the fridge and need to be heated again before using or serving.

Portions of this article originally appeared on Fit as a Mama Bear.

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