Cookbook Club

The Reason Why Canned Coconut Milks Are So Different

April 20, 2018

We’ve been going through a lot of cans of coconut milk this month in our Cookbook Club, as members cook through Leela Punyaratabandhu’s Simple Thai Food: Classic Recipes from the Thai Home Kitchen, and members have been baffled by the difference in texture, color, and taste among various brands of canned coconut milks. As Heather Nabers West said, she expected to find a difference from brand to brand with curry pastes, but she never thought there would be such a big difference among coconut milks. So what gives?

Want to do a deep-dive into different coconut products? We’ve got you covered.

We turned to Cook’s Illustrated to see if they could shed some light on the subject, and no surprise, they could. Last year they rounded up seven different coconut milks and tasted them all three ways: plain, in coconut rice pudding, and in Thai chicken soup. They noticed the textural differences most in the soup, which is similar to our Club members’ experiences—they’ve noticed the differences most often in a red curry sauce (which has been disappointingly thin for many members).

Cook’s Illustrated shared that a range of factors, including the age of the coconut, processing, and temperature during transportation and storage, can contribute to the differences between brands. They also noted that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate the term “coconut milk.” With no set standard, each manufacturer is free to make their coconut milk as thin or as creamy as they want.

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Rather than continue to roll the dice with different brands, members chimed in with their favorite coconut milks, and like the coconut cream in a can of coconut milk, Chaokoh and Aroy-D rose to the top. This matched up with Cook’s Illustrated, who declared Aroy-D as their favorite this time (but selected Chaokoh the previous time they tested coconut milks).

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Being Viet, she used coconut milk for curries (like chicken curry), sweets (like che), sticky rice (like xoi dua). The sticky rice was probably my favorite.”
— HalfPint

Have a favorite use for coconut milk? Fill us in below!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Julija
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    Jackson Fust
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    Mary ann
I like esoteric facts about vegetables. Author of the IACP Award-nominated cookbook, Cooking with Scraps.


Julija April 15, 2019
The thing that really makes me mad is when there’s only “lite” coconut milk left on the shelf... was saved by a hidden can of coconut cream yesterday! The “lite” stuff is the biggest consumer rip-off ever. Half the coconut milk for twice the price!
Ashiraya May 17, 2018
I like Mae Ploy & Aroy-D
Jackson F. April 23, 2018
Sort of related—I was making a curry soup recently and Trader Joe's was out of their coconut cream (which is my go to for soups—nice and thick). Stopped at a different grocery store for it on the way home and accidentally ended up with Creme de Coconut instead (think Coco Lopez). Turned a savory soup into a sugary abomination.
Mart April 20, 2018
Trouble with coconut milk is the small cans. Where are the large, restaurant size #10 cans? Where do Thai and other restaurants get all that coconut milk from in bulk, because I'm sure they don't spend all day opening dozens of those 15 ounce cans.
Lindsay-Jean H. April 21, 2018
Good question! If you ask your favorite local restaurant, please report back and fill us in.
Mary A. April 20, 2018
Trader Joe’s has a very nice coconut milk. Thick and creamy, I’ve used it several times in curry dishes with good results.
Lindsay-Jean H. April 21, 2018
I've had good luck with Trader Joe's, too.
HalfPint April 20, 2018
I've switched to the powdered coconut milk in recent years too. But Aroy-D and Chaokoh were the brands that my mother used when I was growing up. Being Viet, she used coconut milk for curries (like chicken curry), sweets (like che), sticky rice (like xoi dua). The sticky rice was probably my favorite.
Lindsay-Jean H. April 21, 2018
Two votes for powdered now! I definitely need to try it.
Niknud April 23, 2018
Third vote for powdered. You can buy it in bulk from amazon and it's a super fine texture. You can use it in overnight oats, smoothies and to mix up for a coconut milk whose consistency (and sweetness) you can control. Plus it never goes bad so now half used tins in the fridge.
PHIL April 20, 2018
Green curry chicken !
Lindsay-Jean H. April 21, 2018
Solid choice PHIL!
dinner A. April 20, 2018
I usually buy Native Forest brand in large part because it's organic and packed in non-BPA-lined cans. It is also very creamy in flavor and texture, although it has less of the fresh, sort of vegetal coconut flavor than some others (Chaokoh for example) have. This is actually a plus if you want a more neutral nondairy milk/cream substitute.
In my experience, any individual brand of coconut milk also varies quite a bit throughout the year, most likely due to all the factors cited by CI.
Lindsay-Jean H. April 21, 2018
I'll have to keep an eye out for Native Forest!
Regine April 20, 2018
I like the Goya brand but I am no expert. Here is a recipe of mine which I posted in Food52 which is one of my favorite ways to use coconut milk.
Lindsay-Jean H. April 21, 2018
Sounds delicious Regine.
Lakshmi April 20, 2018
After doing my own (disappointing) experiments with canned coconut milk, I switched to powdered. There’s a brand called Grace available on Amazon that’s not bad. It comes in individual sachets and is easy to use. But the most flavourful option I’ve found is Maggi brand powdered coconut milk available at Indian grocery stores. You can smell the coconut as soon as you open the pack.
With powders, you can control the consistency and creaminess of the dish a lot better. The Maggi milk can be mixed in warm water (you’ll need to mix it well) and added to your dish towards the end. Works every time.
Lindsay-Jean H. April 21, 2018
I've never used powdered before, thanks for sharing Lakshmi!