What to CookThai

How to Cook with Coconut Milk

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Inspired by conversations on the Food52 Hotline, we're sharing tips and tricks that make navigating all of our kitchens easier and more fun.

Today: Meet your new favorite all-purpose pantry staple -- Amanda Maguire of Pickles and Honey is giving us a primer on coconut milk. 

I read somewhere that cauliflower is the new kale. But I would argue that coconut -- specifically, coconut milk -- is the next big thing.

Coconut milk is cropping up in everything from non-dairy ice creams and yogurts to soups and stews -- and for good reason: It is creamy, delicious, versatile, and -- bonus -- full of vitamins and minerals. 

More: If you're feeling ambitious, try making your own.

There are a few different kinds of coconut milk, including the kind you find in cartons (typically found near the refrigerated soy and almond milks) and the kind you find in cans (usually located in the Thai aisle of the grocery store). All are made by blending the meat of mature coconuts with water, but each varies in richness. The lightest coconut milk is found in cartons, followed by light canned coconut milk, full-fat canned coconut milk, and finally, canned coconut cream -- which has the highest ratio of coconut meat to water, and the thickest texture. 

I save the lighter, refrigerated cartons as a replacement for dairy milk in cereals and smoothies, but when it comes to using coconut milk in recipes, I prefer the extra-creamy texture of the full-fat variety -- I always keep at least one can in my pantry, and you should, too. 

So pick up a few cans at the store -- here are some of the best ways to use them: 

  • Whipped Cream. One of my happiest discoveries was that you can make the most luscious, airy whipped cream from a can of full-fat coconut milk. The trick is to refrigerate the can overnight, spoon out the top layer of thick coconut that's solidified (you'll want to avoid coconut milk that has added stabilizers or gums; they prevent it from separating), and whip it just as you would heavy cream. It is perfect as a dip for fresh fruits, atop pies and cobblers, or as a fluffy frosting for cupcakes and cakes. 

  • Baked Goods. When I first started experimenting with vegan baking, I feared that I would be relegated to watery, non-dairy milks that made for sad, dried-out baked goods. Thankfully, this couldn't be further from the truth: The addition of coconut milk produces some of the best muffins and breads I've ever had, with a tender crumb and a natural, soul-satisfying sweetness.

More: Coconut milk is also the key ingredient in our favorite Tres Leches Cake.

  • Drinks. Coconut milk is an ideal base for creating extra-creamy beverages, whether you want something cool and refreshing or warm and cozy. In summer, when I'm looking for tropical flavors, I use it in fruit smoothies with frozen mango, pineapple, banana, and fresh lime juice; in winter, there are few things better than rich coconut milk hot chocolate and spicy chai lattes. If you have leftover coconut milk in your fridge, add a splash to your morning coffee for a milky taste without the half-and-half.

  • Curries. The secret to a perfectly satisfying curry lies in balancing the heat and spice with the creaminess of coconut milk. It lends a subtle sweetness that is the key to recreating that wonderful hot, tangy, rich, and sweet combination we find at our favorite Indian and Thai restaurants -- without having to call for takeout.

    Millet Porridge

  • Puddings. You don't need condensed milks or heavy creams to make silky, creamy puddings -- all you need is that convenient little can of coconut milk from your pantry. Coconut milk is excellent in classic chocolate, tapioca, and bread puddings, and it adds richness to chia puddings, too.

    This Creamy Coconut Milk Millet Pudding is a fun twist on traditional rice pudding -- and it's perfectly acceptable for breakfast and dessert alike.

Creamy Coconut Milk Millet Pudding

Serves 4

4 cups full-fat coconut milk
3/4 cup millet
1/4 cup coconut nectar
1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon fine sea salt
4 handfuls chopped raw almonds
4 handfuls fresh berries

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Whipped cream photo by Laura Wright | The First Mess; pudding photo by Alpha Smoot; all others by James Ransom

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Tags: Stew, Quick Bread, Pudding, Pantry, Curry, Weeknight Cooking, Bake, Vegan, Alcohol-Free Drinks, We're Obsessed, Ingredients