What exactly do you know about coconut milk? Here’s a 101 distinguishing the most common types you can buy.
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| Credit: Getty Images

Coconut: If only it was as simple as putting the lime in it, and drinking them both up. Here’s what you should know about the differences between the refrigerated carton at the grocery store, the canned shelf-stable coconut milk, and canned coconut cream.

By and large, according to Chintan Pandya, executive chef of Indian restaurant Junoon in New York City, coconut milk is made by grinding or grating dried coconut, boiling it with water, straining the mixture, and using the resulting liquid. So whenever you see “coconut milk,” you’re talking about the solution made by combining coconut with water. There’s no cow dairy involved whatsoever.

Coconut Milk—Carton, Refrigerated

The refrigerated coconut milk you might spy is not typically intended for cooking, but for putting into coffee, drinking plain, and perhaps adding to cereal. Vegans who don’t like soy or rice milk might use it in any of these incarnations. Though it’s dairy-free, this product has typically been mightily altered from natural coconut, often including lots of water, sugar, added vitamin and minerals, sea salt, and preservatives or thickeners. (When in doubt, read the label!)

Coconut Milk—Canned

More often than not, your local grocery store will stock some sort canned coconut milk—a staple of Thai, Indian, and Mexican cuisines, and thus often tucked away in the Asian or Mexican food aisle. These are typically not sweetened, and tend to employ simply coconuts, water, and sometimes stabilizers such as guar gum. Coconut milk is an integral part of the duck curry Pandya makes, his shrimp curry, and in lots of Southern Indian dishes, he says. It’s even “more common in Thai cooking,” he says. (Pandya used to cook at a Thai restaurant, which made its own coconut milk.) Generally, he says, “the best way to use it is to make a curry.” It’s also part of an excellent, popular Thai coconut milk and chicken soup. If you want to try it in a sweet preparation, look to the dessert world of Thai and Indian cuisines.

Coconut Cream—Canned

If you open a can of coconut milk carefully, and it’s been sitting upright for a while, the rich coconut cream will have floated to the top, and can be delicious as a garnish or in desserts. In fact, coconut cream is also sold on its own, in a can. Per usual, check the ingredients label: If it’s called “cream of coconut,” it’s possible there’s sugar in there. Pandya suggests using cream—which has a silky, luscious texture—as a finishing element on a soup or curry, taking advantage of its texture. Coconut cream is essentially made the same way as coconut milk, he says, except that the ratio of coconut to water is tripled. And cream of coconut is, of course, the beloved star ingredient in a piña colada.

Alex Van Buren is a food and travel writer living in Brooklyn, New York whose work has appeared in Gourmet.com, Bon Appétit, Travel & Leisure, New York Magazine, Martha Stewart Living, and Epicurious. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @alexvanburen.