I fell in love with coconut milk in a Thai cooking class more than twenty years ago. Before that, I’d thought of anything coconut as very sweet, so it was a real revelation to try coconut milk, which was thick, rich, and creamy. That’s when I realized that coconut went well beyond the shredded stuff in the blue bag on the supermarket shelf.
Versatile coconut milk, used instead of milk or cream, adds a wonderfully rich texture and flavor to everything from hearty soups to delicate desserts. Plus, it’s the ultimate convenience food—popping open a can requires no work at all. Those cans will sit patiently on your pantry shelf waiting for you to make something fantastic; there’s no need to worry about choosing a good coconut, opening it, or having it go bad.
Seek out coconut milk from Thailand—it’s consistently the best. I find Thai coconut milk fresher tasting than others, with a luscious texture that’s thick and rich. My favorite brands are Chaokoh and Aroy-D, which are available in 13.5-ounce and 14-ounce cans, respectively. (Some brands of coconut milk are also available in 5.6-ounce cans for when you need a smaller amount.) Unless a recipe specifies otherwise, vigorously shake a can of coconut milk before opening it. Blending the very 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. 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.
What’s the difference between coconut water, coconut milk, coconut cream, and “lite” coconut milk?
At four months old, the young coconut (also called a jelly or green coconut) contains a delicate, clear, slightly sweet liquid called coconut water. Coconut milk, however, is white and thick and is made by blending grated mature coconut with hot water and then straining the liquid. 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. I say who needs it? We can make that ourselves.
Add coconut milk wherever you want creamy texture and rich flavor. As you’ll see in my recipes (and in the ideas below), coconut milk is a wonderful addition to both savory and sweet dishes. For a perfect winter comfort food, try my satisfying vegetable soup, made with a lovely combination of hearty root vegetables, coconut milk, ginger, and fresh thyme. If most of your coconut milk experiences come from eating Thai or other Southeast Asian cuisine, my version of xim-xim, a Brazilian chicken and shrimp stew, will introduce you to an entirely different—and delicious—flavor profile. If it’s dessert you’re after, coconut milk joins bread for elegant individual bread puddings. And finally, for breakfast or a snack, try a warming bowl of oatmeal made with coconut milk and topped with candied pecans and coconut and dried peaches.
Substitute coconut milk for a whole new flavor profile
- Make a quick Thai soup with coconut milk, store-bought Thai curry paste, and broth; add shrimp or chicken, red onion, cilantro, and canned straw mushrooms.
- Coconut milk is also good in creamy soups, like tomato, or hearty ones, like black bean.
- A splash of coconut milk adds quick flavor to stir-fries.
- After sautéing chicken, deglaze the pan with coconut milk, minced shallots, and ginger; add chopped mango chutney and let the mixture reduce. Garnish with minced scallions.
- Make creamed spinach or corn with coconut milk.
- When mashing white or sweet potatoes, add coconut milk instead of regular milk or cream.
- Add coconut milk to the liquid when you’re making rice or risotto. It’s also good in quick-cooking barley and couscous.
- Substitute coconut milk for the yogurt in your favorite Indian curry.
- Coconut milk is wonderful in smoothies, especially ones made with tropical fruits like mango and pineapple.
- Try a little coconut milk in fruit salads and fruit salsas. Make a mango and cucumber salsa with red onion, mint, basil, and coconut milk.
- Use coconut milk as the liquid in quick breads and muffins. They’ll taste even better if you add toasted coconut, tropical fruits, or nuts.
- Use coconut milk with cream or half-and-half in custards like rice pudding or crème brûlée.
- For an easy dessert, heat coconut milk with sliced bananas, a little sugar, and a large pinch of salt and serve warm.