Coconut milk is not the liquid found within the coconut: it's a thick, creamy liquid made from combining coconut meat with hot water (or dairy milk or cream) and straining and squeezing out as much liquid as possible. Coconut milk is an essential ingredient in Thai cuisine, where it's added to curries to tone balance the spicy heat with its creamy sweetness. It can also be used in many recipes in place milk or cream, adding a wonderfully rich texture and flavor to everything from hearty soups to delicate desserts.
Coconut cream is the thick substance that floats to the top of the coconut milk and may be spooned off.
Reduced-fat or "lite" coconut milk is just regular canned coconut milk with water added.
You can make your own, but canned coconut milk is convenient and is found in most supermarkets, as well as in Asian or Latin American groceries.
Seek out coconut milk from Thailand—it's consistently the best, fresher tasting than others, with a luscious texture that's thick and rich.
Do not confuse coconut cream with a product called cream of coconut (Coco Lopez is one popular brand). Cream of coconut is a processed product made with coconut cream and lots of sugar. It isn't interchangeable with coconut milk or coconut cream and is best used for blender drinks.
Unless a recipe specifies otherwise, vigorously shake a can of coconut milk before opening it. Blending the thick cream on the top with the thinner milk below will make it easier to remove the coconut milk from the can without a rubber spatula.
Canned coconut milk will keep for years unopened in a cool, dry place. Once the coconut milk is opened, transfer it to an airtight container and refrigerate. It won't last for more than a couple of days.