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

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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.

About Author

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.

53 Comments

  1. I realize this was posted in August of 2012! but I just now found it while searching on Google! Thank you so very much for the well explained article. It is the very best I have found and exactly what I was looking for. THANK YOU!

      • So when a recipe calls for coconut milk one should assume they mean a canned coconut variety instead of a homemade or drinking coconut milk?

        • That would be the correct terminology, and here on Go Dairy Free, if it says just “coconut milk” then it refers to the canned variety (we note “light” or “regular / full-fat” for further clarification most of the time, but if “light” isn’t noted, then it is the regular full-fat canned version). If it is a coconut milk that you drink then it should be called a milk beverage or milk alternative. Unfortunately, there are many bloggers who incorrectly just put “coconut milk” in their recipes when they are talking about milk beverage.

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  3. I looked on Amazon for coconut cream and found that the boxed coconut cream in boxes similar to aseptic broths and milks in the grocery store do not have any water in them, just add enough water to make it what you want it to be. I looked at the calories to learn what to add. for canned coconut milk add half water and half coconut cream, etc. I liked it because I wasn’t getting the fillers and stabilizers that I get in the canned coconut milk available here in Walmart.
    In addition I’m not paying to ship water, and it’s “organic” although that isn’t a high priority for me since coconut trees are generally organic, according to what I’ve read.

  4. tiffanie ainley on

    I miss cheesecake and cant have it because of lactose intolerance. how can I use coconut cream to make cheesecake in place of cream cheese?

  5. Coconut Milk superfood on

    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!

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  7. vegan in vegas on

    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.

  8. Michelle Anne Duguay on

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

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  10. 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?

    • 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.

  11. 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.

    • 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.

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  13. 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.

    • 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.

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