Cooking with Coconut Milk

Featured Article, Healthy Recipes and Nutrition, Nutrition
on January 11, 2013

All things coconut are hot. Non-dairy refrigerated coconut milk, a low-carb, lactose-free beverage, is quickly becoming a favored substitute for cow’s milk, and coconut water, the super-hydrating liquid from unripe coconut, has taken off as a sports drink. While you shouldn’t believe all the buzz, coconut does have some real taste and health benefits. The fat in coconut, for instance, called medium-chain triglycerides, is burned for calories more readily than other saturated fats, making it less likely to land on your hips.

But all of these coconut concoctions can cause confusion in the kitchen. Cooks have long used canned coconut milk in Thai curries and soup. How does this old kitchen standby stack up to refrigerated coconut milk and coconut water? How best do you use these products in the kitchen? We consulted with nutrition experts and experienced coconut cooks to find out.

Canned coconut milk
Canned coconut milk and refrigerated coconut milk are both made the same way— coconut meat is finely ground (liquified) in water until it is a suspension. (The refrigerated coconut milk is diluted with water to make it less fatty and more drinkable.) Canned coconut milk is traditionally used for cooking, and is a staple in Thai and other Indonesian cuisines. Its high fat content (a whopping 48g per cup) helps carry the flavors and temper the spicy heat of these dishes. Because its fat content falls between light and heavy cream, it can be swapped for either in recipes, says Alisa Fleming, chief editor of and author of Go Dairy Free: The Guide and Cookbook. Canned coconut milk sometimes contains gums or thickeners (more common in “light” versions), so check labels if you want to avoid this ingredient. Some brands also contain preservatives such as bisulfite. People with sulfite allergies will want to steer clear of this ingredient.

RELATED: Coconut Milk Benefits for Women 

Refrigerated coconut milk
Refrigerated coconut milk (and shelf-stable cartons of it) has about 5g fat per cup–one-tenth the fat of canned coconut milk, and only slightly more than that found in 2 percent milk (4.85g per cup). “Refrigerated coconut milk is not a good substitute for canned coconut milk,” Fleming says. “It’s meant to be used as a beverage, or substituted for milk in recipes like pancakes, cake batters or light cream soups.” It often comes in flavors, and may be sweetened (when substituting for dairy milk in recipes, make sure you use the unsweetened version). Refrigerated coconut milk doesn’t separate, with the fat (called coconut cream) on top, the way canned coconut milk does. That’s because it contains gums, thickeners, and emulsifiers that keep the fat dispersed throughout the liquid.

Coconut water
Coconut water has become popular as a sports drink because it is isotonic—it has the same osmotic pressure as our body fluids and can be absorbed through our intestines easily and quickly, so it is good for rehydration. It’s fairly low in calories (46 per cup) and fat (0.5mg per cup), so beverage manufacturers like to use it to reduce calories in “100 percent juice” beverages. It is also a decent source of the nutrients athletes need to replace after heavy activity. One cup has 600mg of potassium, 262mg of sodium, and about 60mg each of magnesium and calcium. It also has small amounts of trace minerals like iron, zinc and selenium. Use coconut water to “cut” healthy but calorie-laden juices like pomegranate or pineapple juice.