A Guide to Canned Coconut Milk (and Why You Should Always Use Full-Fat)

This luscious ingredient deserves a prime spot in your pantry. Here’s everything to know when shopping for it and using it in the kitchen.

<p>Olga Gagarova / Getty Images</p>

Olga Gagarova / Getty Images

Canned coconut milk is one of our favorite pantry staples. While it’s most famously used in Thai curries, it upgrades everything from humble lentils to weeknight salmon and vegan cake with its dairy-free lusciousness and slightly sweet flavor. Here’s everything you need to know when using canned coconut milk in your cooking.

Related: Our Favorite Recipes That Start with a Can of Coconut Milk

What is canned coconut milk?

Canned coconut milk is shredded or grated coconut flesh from mature coconuts (aka brown ones) that gets pureed with water for a creamy yet liquidy texture. It’s different from cartons of coconut milk, which are typically sold as dairy milk alternatives for adding to coffee and baked goods. The carton variety is usually watered down considerably and might include stabilizers, so it’s not a good substitute for canned coconut milk.

What’s the difference between coconut milk and coconut cream?

The biggest difference between coconut milk and cream is the fat content. Coconut cream is also shredded and pressed coconut flesh, but it’s made from the first press of the coconut, whereas coconut milk is pressed additional times and combined with water, yielding less fat. A can of coconut milk will usually have a thick layer of coconut cream at the top due to the fat that naturally separates, unless your can includes a lot of stabilizers like guar gum.

Keep in mind that coconut cream is different from cream of coconut, a syrupy product that’s artificially sweetened and used for cocktails or desserts like piña coladas and coconut cream pie.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the difference between coconut milk and coconut water?

Coconut water is the juice of young, green coconuts, whereas coconut milk is extracted from the shredded or grated coconut flesh of mature coconuts, then mixed with water. Unlike coconut milk, coconut water is thin and clear, and in the U.S. is often packaged and sold as a hydrating, electrolyte-filled beverage. We also like it as a cocktail mixer, in an aguachile, or in a marinade for shrimp.

Does canned coconut milk expire?

Canned coconut milk is shelf-stable and will last quite a long time in your pantry, even after the expiration date on the can. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), low-acid shelf-stable canned goods like coconut milk last for two to five years unopened, and three to four days in the fridge once opened. Store opened coconut milk in an airtight container in the fridge to extend its life by a few days.

How to use coconut milk (and the cream at the top)

Coconut milk adds a beautiful depth and lusciousness to Thai curries, soups, and more. Since it’s usually not fully emulsified, you’ll want to shake the can vigorously before opening it and adding to recipes. If you forget to shake the can before opening, then give it a good stir with a spoon.

You can also scrape off the cream at the top of a can of coconut milk to use in stir-fries or other dishes. First allow the can to chill before scraping off the fatty top layer, then sauté aromatics in the cream as you would in oil or butter. You can also use coconut cream one-to-one to replace heavy cream (as long as you’re okay with some coconut flavor, of course).

Full-fat vs. low-fat coconut milk

When shopping for coconut milk, you’ll likely see some cans labeled “reduced-fat” or “lite.” These are made the same way as full-fat coconut milk, but watered down to reduce the fat content; they may also contain more additives and stabilizers. We always recommend using the full-fat version.

“Full-fat coconut milk has all the richness and flavor I want from this ingredient, and makes everything beautifully creamy,” says F&W’s Associate Editorial Director of Food, Chandra Ram. “Light or skim coconut milk is a sad comparison; you don’t get any of that creamy richness that makes sauces and soups so delicious.”

Related: 20 Luscious Coconut Cream Recipes

How to buy coconut milk

Canned coconut milk is widely available at grocery stores, but for the richest, creamiest coconut milk, consider turning to Asian grocery stores or the internet. Avoid buying deeply dented cans. Some of our favorite brands include Aroy-D and Mae Ploy. We also like Savoy Coconut Cream, which offers a similar fat content as most canned coconut milk.

How to store coconut milk

Store canned coconut milk in a dry, cool place like your pantry. If stored in an airtight container, leftover coconut milk from a can will last in the fridge for up to 10 days. Discard the coconut milk if it smells sour, or if the liquid has curdled.

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