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How to Use Coconut Milk: Recipes, Tips, and Best Brands

Alisa Fleming ~ Coconut milk is a wonderful food and a truly amazing ingredient for anyone who is dairy-free or vegan. But, many people wonder how to use coconut milk? I recently posted about a great deal on Thai Kitchen Organic Coconut Milk (I bought two orders right away!), and a reader asked this question. That very evening, a friend asked me how to use coconut milk when she spotted a few unpacked cans on my counter. I knew it was time to demystify the powers of coconut milk!

How to Use Coconut Milk

Types of Coconut Milk

First, the three basic types of coconut milk on the market …

Full-Fat Canned Coconut Milk:

Decades ago, this was a hard-to-find specialty Asian ingredient, now every grocery store carries it. Look for it in the ethnic section of your local grocery store, or like me, order it online. Good brands will have a thick cream that separates and rises to the top. The more separation and thick cream, the better the product. Yes, separation can be a good thing!

Light Canned Coconut Milk:

This is actually the most popular type of canned coconut milk among Americans and I have no idea why. It’s merely watered down full-fat coconut milk. Save yourself some money. When you want light coconut milk, just use 1 part full-fat canned coconut milk with 2 parts water. Light coconut milk will not separate to give you coconut cream. Light coconut milk may be used in recipes as a substitute for half and half, but the light coconut milk isn’t quite as rich. It has about half the fat of half and half (brands do vary slightly in fat content).

Coconut Milk Beverage:

Do not confuse this low-fat milk-like drink with canned coconut milk. This is a milk alternative, and should be used as such for drinking or in recipes. It is sold in cartons in the refrigerated section or with other shelf stable milk alternatives. If you are frugal, you can make your own by simply adding water to full-fat coconut milk. Coconut milk beverage can be used as a substitute for low fat or whole milk in a 1:1 ratio.

Recommended Coconut Milk Brands

Below are brands that I currently recommend, with my top picks highlighted …

Full-Fat Canned Coconut Milk:

Thai Kitchen Coconut Milk *Top Pick* – Available in both conventional and organic. I do find the organic version to be slightly better quality.

Golden Star Coconut Milk *Top Pick* – This brand is harder to find, but I love that it has just two ingredients: coconut milk and water. Absolutely no stabilizers or gums in this brand, and it’s relatively cheap. It’s sold in Asian markets and surprisingly at Walmart, but I’ve heard the stocks are sporadic at some locations. Please note that this brand is overpriced online for some reason! Purchase it in-store for a much better value (last price check – $1.49 per can).

Native Forest Coconut Milk – This brand also comes in conventional and organic versions. A huge benefit of this brand is that they use BPA-free cans. I’ve trialed it once. I’ve tried it and it was a good brand, no complaints, but it didn’t wow me enough to stray from the other two brands.

Please note that you may see recommendations for Whole Foods 365 Organic on this website. I no longer recommend this brand because the quality has gone downhill. At least in my local area, this brand is more watery and no longer has a nice thick cream like it used to.

Light Coconut Milk:

Trader Joe’s Light Coconut Milk *Top Pick* – If I need some light coconut milk and won’t be going to another store, I pick up this brand. It’s good, reliable, and one of the least expensive on the market.

Thai Kitchen Lite Coconut Milk – I haven’t used this variety myself, but many Go Dairy Free readers have recommended it.

Native Forest Light Coconut Milk – Again, this is the brand to go for if you want BPA-free cans.

Note that you will find a wider variety of both full-fat and light canned coconut milk brands at Asian markets. Chaokah is a popular one, but there are often others. Sometimes they will also be a much better price, but sometimes they won’t! Shop around.

Coconut Milk Beverage:

Trader Joe’s Coconut Milk Beverage – It never goes on sale, unfortunately, but their price is fair, and it’s always in stock in unsweetened.

So Delicious Organic Coconut Milk Beverage – The original brand of coconut milk beverage, and still going strong. I’ve linked to where you can purchase the shelf-stable varieties online, but So Delicious has pretty good distribution and is one of the easiest brands to find in stores.

There are a few other brands on the market including Silk PureCoconut, Coconut Dream, and generics. Honestly, all of these brands have seemed pretty comparable to me. I recommend just shopping based on price. So Delicious tends to offer more coupons and sales.

How to Make Coconut Cream

One of the most amazing things about full-fat coconut milk is coconut cream. It can be whipped like dairy cream and used in recipes in place of dairy cream.

How to use coconut milk as “cream” in recipes:

  1. Shake the can to emulsify the contents.
  2. Open and use in recipes in a 1:1 ratio as a replacement for dairy cream.

Full-fat canned coconut milk is slightly lower in fat than full-fat dairy cream. If you need the extra richness then do the following …

How to use coconut milk as “whipping cream” in recipes:

  1. For the richest coconut cream substitute possible, let the can settle for 30 minutes or longer. If the room temperature is warm, then place the can in the refrigerator for an hour.
  2. Open the can – do not shake it!
  3. Skim off the thick layer of cream to use in your recipes or to whip! You will get anywhere from 1/2 cup to 3/4 cup (or even a little more) of coconut cream per can, depending on the quality of the brand.

How to Use Coconut Milk: Thick Cream in Canned Coconut Milk

Coconut Milk Tips & Notes

  • Obviously, coconut milk and cream do not taste exactly like dairy cream. They have a definite coconut vibe. The lighter or more watered down the coconut milk, the less “coconut” it tastes. Choose recipes wisely to ensure that the flavor melds.  You may actually be surprised how versatile it is, even though it is coconut. See the recipes below for tons of ideas.
  • The watery liquid left after you skim the cream from a can of coconut milk can be used in smoothies or other recipes like coconut water or a light coconut milk.
  • Coconut milk freezes well. If your recipe only calls for a small amount, simply freeze it into cubes. I usually portion it into 2 tablespoon cubes. This way I have a small amount and can pop out as many cubes as I need for recipes at a later date.
  • Coconut milk and coconut cream really are the “original” dairy alternatives. They branded their names long before milk alternatives and substitutes arrived on the market and the dairy industry got proprietary about titles. So you can refer to them as coconut milk and coconut cream – they are dairy-free, but you don’t have to put “alternative” or “substitute” in their title.
  • Of course, cans and cartons aren’t your only option. You can actually make your own coconut milk! My friend Alexa shows you how with her Fresh Coconut Milk Recipe.

How to Use Coconut Milk … Dairy-Free Recipes!

Most of the recipes below use full-fat canned coconut milk. Some may call for light coconut milk, which you can make from full-fat canned coconut milk as noted above. All of the recipes below are dairy-free, and most are vegan and gluten-free, too!

Sweet

How to Use Coconut Milk: Ricki's Vegan Almond Mousse Pie

Savory

How to Use Coconut Milk: Alta's Brazillian Fish Stew

Enjoy more great coconut milk-inspired recipes, including whipped coconut cream recipes, in Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook.

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About Alisa Fleming

Alisa is the founder of GoDairyFree.org, Senior Editor for Allergic Living magazine, and author of the best-selling dairy-free book, Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook for Milk Allergies, Lactose Intolerance, and Casein-Free Living. Alisa is also a professional recipe creator and product ambassador for the natural food industry. Follow me on Google+.

View all posts by Alisa Fleming →

Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook for Milk Allergies, Lactose Intolerance, and Casein-Free Living

44 Comments

  1. MaggieAugust 8, 2012 at 1:14 pmReply

    This is a great post with lots of great recipe ideas. I’ve pinned it so I remember to come back when I need some inspiration!

  2. CarolAugust 8, 2012 at 1:35 pmReply

    What a fabulous post! Such great information, thank you!

  3. AmyAugust 8, 2012 at 4:08 pmReply

    Great post! Thank you!

  4. Shirley @ gfeAugust 8, 2012 at 8:03 pmReply

    Excellent post, Alisa! I always wonder why folks use the light coconut milk. It’s usually the same price as full-fat coconut milk and as you share, one can just use the full-fat coconut milk to make “light” coconut milk. Plus, I’m not willing to give up my coconut cream. ;-)

    Shirley

    • Alisa FlemingAugust 8, 2012 at 8:40 pmReplyAuthor

      I have to agree with you Shirley, I just couldn’t give up that cream!

  5. Kim-Cook It Allergy FreeAugust 8, 2012 at 9:07 pmReply

    Holy cow! What a fantastic mega post! A Great resource. I LOVE it!! I am off to share this one now.

  6. SuperfoodsAugust 8, 2012 at 10:37 pmReply

    Hi Alisa
    Been looking for coconut milk recipes. Was surprised to learn you can do pasta sauces with it, didn’t even occur to me. I wonder if my kids will notice?

  7. LynnAugust 9, 2012 at 9:07 amReply

    I love your book, blog and website. I have multiple food allergies, dairy being one of the worst, and have benefited so much from your work. Many thanks and gratitude. Your resource guides and books have also been wonderful for my gluten and other allergies. Thank you.

    • Alisa FlemingAugust 9, 2012 at 9:57 amReplyAuthor

      Thank you so much Lynn! This is very sweet of you to share and I’m so glad I can help.

  8. alice tAugust 13, 2012 at 10:58 amReply

    this is a great article! love all the references and tips on brands.

  9. JoanneAugust 14, 2012 at 5:14 amReply

    Could this timing be any more perfect given that I have leftover coconut milk in my fridge right now?? Awesome post!

  10. katieAugust 25, 2012 at 3:30 pmReply

    Wow Alisa, great post. It’s obvious that coconut milk is very versitile and a fabulous alternative to dairy. It fits in very well when we choose to live a healthy lifestyle. Fantastic recipies by the way! I love your tip on skimming the cream and saving the lighter milk for those recipes that call for it and I didn’t think of freezing the rest as ice cubes either. Thanks for that….

  11. Mon, Sep 17 | UltraRunnerPodcast.comSeptember 17, 2012 at 4:06 amReply

    [...] us dairy free people, here’s some good info on coconut milk…ya know, that stuff Meghan Arbogast swears [...]

  12. Jenn VOctober 25, 2012 at 8:25 pmReply

    I turn the can upside down and open it from the bottom, and drain off the water (which I sometimes drink or add to my smoothies… yum!) I then take the thick coconut milk and mix it with sliced fruit, chia seeds and hemp hearts for an amazing dairy-free fruit salad!

  13. How to Substitute for Coconut Milk and Coconut Oil - Go Dairy FreeNovember 5, 2012 at 6:03 amReply

    [...] comes in the cans and is available in light or regular / full fat. You can read more about it in my Coconut Milk Primer. We like this ingredient for its natural, rich profile that mimics dairy cream in consistency. [...]

  14. Toni ClarkNovember 7, 2012 at 10:38 amReply

    Thank you, thank you, thank you I was going to ask how to use it now I don’t have to. Thank you again.

  15. GratefulfoodieNovember 14, 2012 at 10:21 amReply

    Is there one brand over another of coconut milk that folks like best for baking vs. cooking???

    Thanks for any ideas as I want to try out some new recipes that need a heavier, creamier texture.

    • Alisa FlemingNovember 14, 2012 at 10:39 amReplyAuthor

      I use the same brands for baking and cooking. See the recommendations in the article for thick and creamy!

  16. Golden StarFebruary 1, 2013 at 4:52 pmReply

    Thanks for the shout-out! Golden Star Coconut Milk can be found in not only WalMart but also Kroger (Ralphs and Food 4 Less), Safeway, some select Targets and other regional supermarkets depending on your location. We’re so proud of our natural product and glad to see such great recipes and uses for Coconut Milk. Happy Eating!

  17. Richard HulbertFebruary 6, 2013 at 3:09 amReply

    I just read a book about coconut cures and I am sold on learning about how to prepare food using coconut. I like what I have read so far and will come back to this sight.

    Richard

  18. Carol Da Costa MDFebruary 26, 2013 at 12:37 pmReply

    Do you have a recipe for cheese made with coconut milk. I went to this little Vegeterian restaurant and order tacos which they told me were made with coconut cheese. Have searched google and have not found a recipe for coconut milk cheese. Love your book.

  19. Beth & HarryMarch 30, 2013 at 6:09 amReply

    We just bought some Coco Lopez coconut milk. Do you recommend or no? Our first attempt to use coconut milk and we didn’t research it first. Thanks! Seems to be the full-fat version.

    • Alisa FlemingMarch 30, 2013 at 5:52 pmReplyAuthor

      I haven’t trialed that brand yet, but it should be good Give it a go!

  20. JessicaApril 30, 2013 at 9:04 amReply

    I wanted to avoid a grocery store trip, but use up extras in the fridge. I made the Creamy thai tomato soup from above with some variations: I am vegan, so I omitted the meat and used frozen shitake mushrooms and red lentils. I also added scallions, to use them up. The coconut milk I had in the fridge was a 3/4 can of whole fat coconut. I am eating the finished product right now and I have to say that I would pay good money for this in a restaurant. Super yummy! Thanks for helping me avoid the grocery store for one more day!

    • Alisa FlemingMay 1, 2013 at 6:46 amReplyAuthor

      Love your modifications Jessica and so glad you enjoyed it!

  21. Vegan Alternatives to Dairy Milk and CreamMay 15, 2013 at 2:59 pmReply

    [...] used in Thai, India, Caribbean, and Hawaiian cuisine, coconut milk lends a luxurious creaminess to any dish it’s added to: from curries and soups to ice creams [...]

  22. – Gluten Free Grain Free Banana Upside Down Cake RecipeJune 1, 2013 at 9:47 pmReply

    [...] this recipe over the tp. Or you can make some whipped coconut cream as my friend Alisa explains here (scroll down to where she says “How to Make Coconut Cream”). Of course, it is really pretty [...]

  23. CoconutLoverJune 12, 2013 at 7:38 amReply

    Thank you for compiling such a nice list of coconut milk products. One thing I would like to mention is that the coconut milk beverages are not just intended for drinking as a milk sort of substitute, they also contain a lot of weird stabilizers so that the “milk” doesn’t separate.

    Also for people looking for coconut milk that is just coconut milk, the Trader Joe’s light coconut milk is just coconut milk and water. And it is a pretty fair price of only 99 cents. Totally bummed they don’t sell a full fat coconut milk though.

    • Alisa FlemingJune 12, 2013 at 9:03 amReplyAuthor

      Thank you for your input! I think the TJ’s in your area must be a little different. The light coconut milk from TJ’s does have stabilizers in our area, and they do have canned “coconut cream” which is essentially full fat coconut milk – really just a smidgen fattier.

  24. Top 3 Must-Have Dairy-Free Ingredients + 21 Recipes | daily digestJuly 18, 2013 at 2:00 amReply

    [...] this point, I must emphasize that not all brands of canned coconut milk are created equally. See my Guide to Coconut Milk for more detail on using this amazing dairy-free [...]

  25. Dairy AllergySeptember 29, 2013 at 4:18 pmReply

    Curious if anyone else has experienced possible cross contamination, such as due to processing on equipment shared with cows milk.
    I seem to have reacted strongly to Native Forest brand milk twice (unfortunately, as I thought it was safe) with dairy like allergy symptoms — lightheadedness, dizziness, etc.

    • Alisa FlemingSeptember 30, 2013 at 1:25 pmReplyAuthor

      Canned coconut milk isn’t typically made in the same facility (or by the same companies) as dairy products. Most are from Asia, but I would check with the company on any packaged food where severe/sensitive allergies are a concern.

  26. NancyNovember 5, 2013 at 7:45 pmReply

    My husband recently made a couple of meals asking for coconut milk. He used what you call the beverage. How would one know if it just says 3/4c coconut milk?

    • Alisa FlemingNovember 5, 2013 at 8:23 pmReplyAuthor

      I a recipe calls for coconut milk, then it should be referring to canned coconut milk – which is much fattier. If still unsure, look at the recipe and think about if it would typically call for milk, like low fat milk, or cream. If it is something like a sauce, rich curry, or soup, then cream is probably in order and full fat coconut milk (canned) would be needed. I rarely “cook” with coconut milk beverage unless using thickeners.

  27. Vegan Alternatives to Dairy Milk and CreamDecember 9, 2013 at 1:16 amReply

    […] used in Thai, India, Caribbean, and Hawaiian cuisine, coconut milk lends a luxurious creaminess to any dish it’s added to: from curries and soups to ice creams […]

  28. Michelle Anne DuguayJanuary 19, 2014 at 8:27 amReply

    I recently made recipe a curry chickpeas & veggie stir fry using coconut milk. Any idea how long it will keep? I have some leftover….

    • Alisa FlemingJanuary 19, 2014 at 9:16 amReplyAuthor

      Without knowing the exact ingredients and preparation, I would estimate about 2 days – like most prepared dishes.

  29. vegan in vegasFebruary 8, 2014 at 4:21 pmReply

    I discovered this trick by accident. I needed to chill a can of coconut milk (Native Forest). Stuck it in the freezer overnight instead of the fridge. Took it out about an hour after freaking out about the freezer instead of the fridge. All the lovely, pure white cream is now frozen and so easy to scoop out with a spoon. Once I got about 1/2 of the way down the can, I noticed the greyish water and stopped scooping. MUCH easier to scoop out partially frozen than when chilled overnight.

    I think that once the can is frozen, you can very easily turn it over and open it “water side up” to make it easier to pour out the water. If its chilled, it might blend together if you turn the can over.

  30. Gluten Free Grain Free Banana Upside Down Cake Recipe | Simply Gluten FreeFebruary 11, 2014 at 5:35 amReply

    […] this recipe over the top. Or you can make some whipped coconut cream as my friend Alisa explains here (scroll down to where she says “How to Make Coconut Cream”). Of course, it is really pretty […]

  31. Coconut Milk superfoodApril 24, 2014 at 3:58 pmReply

    Oh snap, thank you very much for posting this! It is going to help me when I order Coconut Milk at the store! Super Marvelous!

  32. KimJuly 25, 2014 at 12:36 pmReply

    After you scoop out the cream from the can of coconut milk, can you use the water to make coconut water kefir?

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