Photo: Antonis Achilleos; Food Styling: Rishon Hanners; Prop Styling: Missie Crawford

Whether you’re trying to reduce your dairy consumption or simply want to use the flavor to enhance your recipes, here are some good ideas for coconut milk beginners.

Gillie Houston
February 12, 2019
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Though coconut milk has been a pantry staple in many parts of the world for decades, it’s recently become a trendier ingredient in the United States, helped along by a surge in paleo diets and lactose-free eating plans. While you’ve likely heard some of the hype around coconut milk, there’s a chance you’ve never cooked with it—whether you’re confused about the nature of the ingredient itself or just don’t know how to put it to use. 

Not to be confused with coconut water—which is found in the middle of a young coconut—coconut milk is a liquid that is extracted from the grated pulp of a mature coconut, resulting in a creamier product that contains a layer of fatty coconut cream. However, not all coconut milks are created equal, or serve the same purpose in the kitchen.

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The coconut milk you find in cartons in the refrigerator section of the grocery store—such as Silk Coconut Milk—is typically made of a combination of coconut cream and filtered water, usually with added ingredients such as cane sugar, natural flavors, and preservatives. This is a thinner, sweeter product that is best used as a beverage or cereal topper, rather than for cooking. 

The coconut milk you find in cans on the shelf is better for cooking because it usually doesn’t have the additives found in the carton version. Canned coconut milk is topped with the thick coconut cream, which is necessary for lending its characteristically silky texture to recipes. Look for an unsweetened coconut milk like Native Forest or Thai Kitchen, which also come in a “light” option for those trying to reduce their fat or calorie consumption. 

Whether you’re trying to reduce your dairy consumption or simply want to use the flavor to enhance your recipes, here are some good ideas for coconut milk beginners to use this versatile ingredient. 

Breakfast

While coconut milk is best known for its contribution to savory dishes, it can also be a great tool for crafting dairy-free breakfasts.  Try it in Toasted Coconut Strawberry Pancakes (also made gluten-free with the help of coconut flour), Baked Coconut French Toast with Tropical Fruit Compote, or Coconut Zucchini Bread that can double as a snack or dessert.

You can opt for a fast, healthy breakfast by swapping the traditional dairy in your daily oatmeal or chia pudding with coconut milk, or by adding it into a Coconut Milk Smoothie. Coconut milk is excellent in smoothies—save time in the morning by freezing your coconut milk into ice cube-sized pieces to be popped into the blender with your favorite fruits and a splash of coconut water or juice. 

Soups and Stews

One of the most popular uses for coconut milk is in soups and stews, where it adds a lovely creaminess and a subtle coconut flavor.  The fattiness of coconut milk works particularly well with spices and acid, which is why it’s often included in traditional Thai dishes, for example. Try it out in Thai dishes like Spicy Thai Coconut Chicken Soup, Thai Red Curry Fish Stew, and Thai Peanut Sweet Potato Soup. Coconut milk also adds a nice note to Butternut Soup with Coconut Milk and Vietnamese Clam Chowder.

Seafood

Coconut milk also plays really well with seafood, whether it’s countering the brininess of clams or adding a silky sauce to dish. A simple Shrimp and Scallop Ceviche is a wonderful way to highlight not only the clean flavors of the seafood, but also the coconut milk in its simplest, uncooked form. Or, add some heat to the equation by turning coconut milk into a rich, curry-tinged sauce for dishes like Thai Coconut-Curried Salmon with Greens and Coconut Shrimp Curry.

Meats

While seafood dishes get much of the attention when it comes to coconut milk recipes, this ingredient’s ability to lighten up and highlight the richness of meatier dishes shouldn’t be ignored.

One of the best proteins to pair with coconut milk is chicken. Make a creamy, subtly coconut-flavored sauce for a traditional dish like Curried Coconut Chicken Rendang or utilize coconut milk as an amazing marinade for a sweet and spicy Grilled Red Curry Chicken. For a quick fix, try these easy Chicken Sate Wraps, which will have you in and out of the kitchen in minutes.

If you’re more of a red meat fan, dig into some Coriander-Coconut Braised Ribs, which are cooked for hours in a coconut milk bath in the slow cooker until perfectly tender, or a Spicy Thai Red Curry Beef.

Vegetarian Dishes

For those who’d rather skip the meat altogether, there are plenty of veggie-centric options that are given a textural and taste upgrade by the addition of coconut milk.

Take your standard rice to the next level by swapping half the water with coconut milk during the cooking process, which will result in a creamy, rich final product that perfectly compliments a variety of vegetable dishes.Amp up your everyday pot of rice by making abatch of Coconut Ginger Rice, which will pair perfectly with a Sweet Potato and Cashew Korma.

Ditch your favorite takeout noodles in favor of a healthy and flavorful Thai Sweet Potato Noodle Bowl or Satay Soba Noodle Bowl. Or, get a protein boost with the help of legume-filled dishes like Vegetable and Chickpea Curry and Spicy Beans with Coconut Milk

Desserts

By this point, it’s probably no surprise that coconut milk can make the perfect, ultra-creamy addition to a wide variety of desserts, and a good trick for dairy-free or vegan desserts. Velvety recipes like a Pina Colada Sorbet and Strawberry Coconut Panna Cotta are a natural fit. However, coconut milk can also be a surprising addition to baked goods like Toasted Coconut-Pecan Cupcakes with Coconut Cream Cheese Frosting and Double Coconut Cake

Beverages

Once you’ve mastered the use of coconut milk in your cooking, it’s time to whip up some beverages to go with. Try out a soothing Golden Milk Tea made with turmeric, ginger, and honey, or swap coconut milk for dairy in a classic like Coconut Milk Hot Chocolate or Coconut Eggnog.

With this bevvy of coconut milk inspiration, you should be well equipped to utilize your entire can; however, if you do find yourself with leftovers check out these ideas for how to make the most of your leftover canned coconut milk. After all, with an ingredient so delicious and versatile, you won’t want to waste a drop. 

 

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