Weeknight Cooking

How to Cook with Coconut Milk

October 21, 2014

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. 

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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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A New Way to Dinner, co-authored by Food52's founders Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs, is an indispensable playbook for stress-free meal-planning (hint: cook foundational dishes on the weekend and mix and match ‘em through the week).

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See what other Food52 readers are saying.

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Culinary Nutrition Expert | Vegan Food Writer


Ginna G. May 26, 2015
Buy organic, and boycott all Goya products. They're paying big money to block GMO labeling.
Aysegul S. May 26, 2015
Oh I LOVE coconut milk... Possibilities are endless. I also make popsicles with coconut milk. All you have to do is mix with whatever soft fruit (peaches, pineapples, strawberries, raspberries, etc.) you have on hand, add a little maple syrup or honey, and place it in popsicle molds. It is not only super easy to make and delicious, but also healthy..
Great post! Thank you for sharing.
pennyolsen May 25, 2015
So use only the solidified part for whipping?
Tamour A. May 25, 2015
watch out though, some carton coconut milks found in the refrigerated section are extremely sweet!
Charlotte F. May 25, 2015
I only use canned coconut milk for cooking. It has higher fat/more cream (you can't whip the stuff in the cartons) and no added sugars.
nancy E. May 25, 2015
I am very excited about this. Always looking for new ways to cut bad calories and add new tastes. The possibilities are exciting.
David W. May 25, 2015
I love this: http://www.purewow.com/recipes/Coconut-Creamed-Spinach?utm_campaign=social&utm_source=facebook
Michelle B. May 25, 2015
I use it for frosting cake and other goodies ! http://badzoot.com/as-promised-coconut-milk-frosting/ It's fabulous, Thank you Food52 for reminding me.
LysiaLoves November 25, 2014
Hoping you can help me! I'm making my greatgrandmother's bread pudding for TG and it calls for 1 1/2 loaves baker's bread, 1/2 lb butter, 8 eggs, 2 qts milk, 3/4 c sugar (plus spices, etc). It is also served with a floradora sauce so I'm trying to reduce the dairy load in the pudding itself. I bought the light coconut milk (no gums) from TJs since I'm replacing reg milk not cream. The pudding bakes in pan of water at 225 all day. My question is, should I replace the milk ounce-for-ounce with the light coconut milk? It's still thicker than reg milk so wasn't sure. Also want to make sure it'll set up properly. I've never used coconut milk to make custard-type recipes and I only get one shot at this! Thanks in advance!!
TerryKes October 22, 2014
I love all things coconut! Thanks for this article that includes so many recipe links. I find it interesting/curious all of the 'new' info on coconut (milk/oil, etc), though. For years, we were taught to stay away from tropical oils/fats as they were bad for your heart. Any information how that is true/false?
laurenlocally October 21, 2014
I love the idea of the whipped cream! Especially because the coconut tres leche is my all time favorite F52 cake (apologies chocolate dump it).
Allyn October 21, 2014
My husband is allergic to dairy, so we use coconut milk multiple times a week! Also, we love asian food, so it's kind of a win/win. I make a thinner version for smoothies (http://girlnamedallyn.wordpress.com/2014/05/28/homemade-coconut-milk/), but I always have a few cans on hand for curries, soups, whatever we need. Amazing all that you can use it for!