Got “Coconut” Milk?

When a recipe calls for coconut milk, who knew that getting the right “coconut milk” could be so confusing?  It should not be but with grocers offering so many different incarnations of this tropical nut that go by the same or very similar names, confusion abounds.  And to make selecting even more daunting, the different products really aren’t interchangeable.  Touted as the ultimate non-dairy beverage, bursting with health benefits that run the gamut from aiding with weight loss to preventing heart disease to balancing cholesterol levels, one needs to know which to use for what.  So what is coconut milk and all of its incarnations?  Which should we use for what?

Coconut milk is the real deal and the one you want for cooking.  True coconut milk comes in a can and is  found in the international aisle usually near the Asian food items.  It is a thick, fatty liquid made from steeping shredded coconut in hot water at a 1:1 ratio resulting in a thick, pourable product.  Good brands will have a thick cream that separates and rises to the top.  The more separation and thicker the cream, the better the product.  It has a coconut-y flavor making it a key ingredient in many Asian and Indian dishes.

Light coconut milk is merely a watered down version (1:2 ratio) of full-fat coconut milk.  Light coconut milk does not separate to give coconut cream.  It may be substituted for half-and-half in recipes with approximately half the fat of half-and-half.

Coconut water is a hip new drink made from the liquid that is naturally inside the wild, immature coconut nut.  Drink it, but do not cook with it.  Being high in potassium, it is a popular post-workout beverage due to its nutritional value.  It is also an excellent substitute for liquids used in sorbets.  Coconut water is blended with coconut cream to create coconut milk.

Carton of coconut milk is a beverage usually found in the dairy section of the store next to the other non-dairy milks.  It may be unsweetened or sweetened (with sugar) and is used as you would dairy milk for sipping, splashing on to cereal, with coffee, or in recipes.  Coconut milk beverage can be used as a substitute for low fat or whole milk in a 1:1 ratio for general cooking and baking.  However, it should not be substituted for canned coconut milk when a recipe calls for such; they are simply different products.  The difference is mainly lots of water. To make the refrigerated version more drinkable, palatable, and comparable as a beverage alternative, manufacturers add water. So much so that it dilutes the calories from about 450 calories per cup to about 45. Some varieties also have added sugars, gums, and thickeners.

Coconut cream is the most concentrated version of coconut milk.  With a high fat content and low water density, it is incredibly rich and will make any recipe creamier.  It can be used to thicken soups or to make vegan whipped cream.  Sold in cans, it is also found in the international aisle near the Asian food items.

Sweetened cream of coconut is coconut cream that has been sweetened.  It is incredibly sweet and intended for cocktails like a Pina Colada or to be used in a frozen dessert.

Coconut milk has erroneously gotten a bad rap because it is high in saturated fats.  Research reveals that coconut milk has unique fatty acids which provide a healthy source of fat, thereby contributing to the fore mentioned health benefits.  Further, new research finds that people who include healthy fats in their diet, like those found in coconut milk (medium-chain triglycerides), eat less than those who do not.

In a ‘coconut’ shell—with a little coconut milk knowledge, choosing the right milk for the job does not have to be confusing nor do you need to be overly concerned about the saturated fat found in coconut milk.

Marlene Geiger

I am a graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln with a BS in Home Economics Education and Extension and from Colorado State University with a MS in Textiles and Clothing. I enjoy spending time with family and friends, gardening, quilting, cooking, sewing, and sharing knowledge and experience with others.

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10 thoughts on “Got “Coconut” Milk?

  1. Such an important article since it is often so difficult to distinguish between the various types of coconut milk. As a side note, when choosing coconut milk for cooking, it is key to avoid brands that include too many additives or preservatives. These can take away from the nutritional value of the coconut milk.

  2. Thank you! This was very helpful….i made Paleo Muffins this morning and the batter was really too think. I used canned coconut milk instead of refrigerated coconut milk. I think maybe they meant the refrigerated kind.

  3. Kim, thank you for your positive feedback. You are probably right on your assumption in regard to the thickness of your muffin batter. Canned coconut milk is usually diluted 2 parts milk to 1 part water for baking unless noted otherwise.

  4. Hi Marlene! Do you know what could I use to substitute canned coconut milk? Since it is not really accesible where I live. I was thinking on using normal coconut milk + coconut oil/coconut cream/ cocoa butter. What do you think?

  5. Steph, Since you do not say what you are making, I’m not sure how to answer your question. While both are made from coconuts, canned coconut milk and coconut milk beverage are two very different products. If you are baking, the coconut milk beverage can be used to replace any dairy product and can also be used to replace buttermilk by adding lemon juice or vinegar to it. If the fat of the coconut milk is needed in a baked product, then the substituion is 1/4 oil to 3/4 cup liquid (unsweetened coconut milk beverage could be used for the liquid). If you are making Thai food, the coconut milk beverage does not duplicate the taste or consistency of canned coconut milk. If you have access to coconut cream, it can be watered down: blend 2 tablespoons of coconut cream and ¾ cup of water until smooth. It is also possible to create your own coconut milk using 1/4 unsweetened coconut flakes boiled in 3/4 cup of water for 5 minutes, then blended until it comes together. Strain if required. If the coconut flavor is not needed, evaporated milk can be substituted. I hope this gives you some possibilities for different applications.

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