What is Coconut Milk? The Useful Guide from Beverage to Cream

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Please note that So Delicious discontinued their coconut milk line, which was my favorite. It is the little aseptic packages that you will see in the pictures of this post. They had unique packaging – most other brands of coconut milk and lite coconut milk are sold in cans. I’ve added references to other brands so that you can see the packaging you will be looking for. What you get in the cans should still look like the pictures, and all of the information regarding “what is coconut milk” still holds true! Although they phased out their coconut milk line, So Delicious still makes the coconut milk beverage pictured. 

I was reading the top food trend predictions for this year, and Whole Foods said coconut will continue to be “one of the hottest ingredients”. Which got me thinking about the number one misstep many of our readers tend to make. They often use the wrong type of “coconut milk” in dairy-free recipes. It’s an honest mistake, but can lead to a disappointing recipe fail. So I’ve created this quick guide to put proper names with details AND visuals. I hope it helps you to ace those recipes and make your own ingredient swaps with ease.

What is Coconut Milk - Quick Guide and Reference to the Beverage, Lite, Regular and Cream

What Is Coconut Milk? Demystifying the Types …

There are four versions of “coconut milk” currently on the market, and it’s essential to understand the differences. I keep each one on hand as they work miracles in dairy-free recipes, but aren’t always interchangeable. If you use coconut milk beverage in a homemade whip, it likely won’t set up. And traditional coconut milk would probably be too rich for your morning bowl of granola. So here’s my easy-to-follow answer to the common question, “what is coconut milk?”:

Coconut Milk Beverage

What is Coconut Milk - Quick Guide and Reference to the Beverage, Lite, Regular and Cream

Special Note: You might see some food bloggers label coconut milk beverage as simply “coconut milk.” Please politely ask them to stop doing that, so we can all avoid confusion! Coconut milk beverage should (almost) never be used as a substitute for coconut milk. 

Key Facts on Coconut Milk Beverage

  • Consistency similar to 2% dairy milk.
  • Sold in shelf-stable and refrigerated packages, in large quart of half-gallon sizes.
  • Usually found in the refrigerated “non-dairy” section or on the shelves in the cereal aisle of supermarkets. The shelf-stable versions can also be purchased online.
  • Everyday multi-purpose uses for drinking, smoothies, and cereal.
  • Can be used in place of dairy milk in most recipes, including baking and sauces.
  • Available unsweetened, sweetened, and in flavors.
  • Adds minimal coconut flavor to recipes.
  • Should NOT be used when a recipe specifically calls for just “coconut milk”. It will not help to thicken, pies, fudge, whip, etc., on its own.

Lite Coconut Milk

What is Coconut Milk - Quick Guide and Reference to the Beverage, Lite, Regular and Cream
Special Note: So Delicious discontinued their Lite Coconut Milk (they called it “Culinary”). Most other brands are sold in cans. You can click the image below, which is a popular brand.

Key Facts on Lite Coconut Milk

  • A thinner, lower fat version of traditional coconut milk.
  • Thicker, creamier, and slightly higher in fat than coconut milk beverage.
  • Sold in shelf-stable cans (the the uniquely packaged aseptic version pictured above has been discontinued).
  • Usually sold in the Asian food section of supermarkets. It can also be purchased online.
  • Not available sweetened or in flavors.
  • Used frequently in Thai recipes.
  • Can be used in place of light cream or half and half in most recipes.
  • May add a hint of coconut flavor, depending on the recipe.

Coconut Milk

What is Coconut Milk - Quick Guide and Reference to the Beverage, Lite, Regular and Cream

Special Note: So Delicious discontinued their regular Coconut Milk (they called it “Culinary”). Most other brands are sold in cans. You can click the image below, which is a popular brand.

Key Facts on Coconut Milk

  • This is “full-fat” regular coconut milk made from the grated meat of a mature coconut.
  • Sold in shelf-stable cans (the the uniquely packaged aseptic version pictured above has been discontinued).
  • Usually sold in the Asian food section of supermarkets. It can also be purchased online.
  • Not available sweetened or in flavors.
  • Has a thick, creamy consistency that doesn’t pour easily, unless heated.
  • Can be used in place of heavy cream in most recipes.
  • Traditionally used in Asian and Tropical cuisines for dishes like curry.
  • Thickens further as it chills, so you must not substitute coconut milk beverage or lite coconut milk in recipes where coconut milk helps in “setting up” or when a very rich or thick consistency is desired.
  • May add some coconut flavor, depending on the recipe.

Coconut Cream

What is Coconut Milk - Quick Guide and Reference to the Beverage, Lite, Regular and Cream

Special Notes: Good quality coconut milk should always separate and thicken to create a fair amount of coconut cream. You should get 1/2 cup to 1 cup of cream per package or can. If it doesn’t then it likely has too many additives or is a poor quality batch.

I previously used So Delicious regular Coconut Milk (they called it “Culinary”) because it produced a lot of coconut cream. Most other brands of coconut milk are sold in cans, and you can buy coconut cream (pictured below), which is usually sold next to the coconut milk. Canned coconut cream still needs to be separated. Some brands are actually thinner than coconut milk!

Key Facts on Coconut Cream

  • This is coconut milk with even more water removed to produce a thick cream.
  • To make coconut cream, place canned coconut milk or coconut cream in the refrigerator overnight. Scoop the thick cream that forms from the top.
  • Usually sold in shelf-stable cans (there are a few brands that sell coconut cream in small aseptic packages). It can also be purchased online.
  • Can be used in place of whipping cream in most recipes. Also works well in chilled desserts that need to set up.
  • Will most likely add some coconut flavor, but this still depends on the recipe.

What is Coconut Milk? See it in Action!

Understanding Coconut Milk: Beverage to Cream!

Essential Info: Coconut Milk Beverage vs Lite Coconut Milk vs Coconut Milk vs Coconut Cream! (Brightened up video)

Posted by Go Dairy Free on Friday, February 3, 2017

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What is Coconut Milk - Quick Guide and Reference

About Author

Alisa is the founder of GoDairyFree.org, Food 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, and the new cookbook, Eat Dairy Free: Your Essential Cookbook for Everyday Meals, Snacks, and Sweets. Alisa is also a professional recipe creator and product ambassador for the natural food industry.

66 Comments

  1. Such a great post with helpful information as it’s often a question that gets asked and there is such a difference when talking about coconut milk beverages and canned (or boxed, So Delicious Culinary Coconut Milk is my fav) coconut milk and cream.

    • You bring up a good point – the new little eco cartons for coconut milk are awesome, but I can no longer just write “canned”, so now we have to teach people a little more 🙂

  2. Dianne's Vegan Kitchen on

    This is really helpful info! I love using coconut milk in my recipes, but I know that it can sometimes confuse newbies.

  3. Super helpful! I try to use the term “canned” coconut milk in my recipes to differentiate between the beverage and regular coconut milk, but still some people are confused. Definitely sharing this!

    • Thanks Jenn! I think coconut milk beverage hit the mainstream before many people realized that coconut milk was a real (and different) thing that had been around for eons! I appreciate that you differentiate 🙂

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