If the closest you've come to a can of coconut milk is a takeout container of Thai chicken curry, you're missing out—it's responsible for a wealth of flavorful dishes that range from sweet, rich ice creams to spicy dips and soothing soups.
But what exactly is it? Not to be confused with coconut water, which comes from the center of young green coconuts, coconut milk is made from grated and pressed brown coconut, much like almond or cashew milks. And, thanks to a high fat content (sorry dieters!), it has a rich, mildly sweet flavor and creamy texture that's remarkably similar to dairy milks. Fresh coconut milk is a staple ingredient in Southeast Asia, parts of China and India, and the Caribbean, but here in the States you'll mainly find it canned. Often, if the can doesn't contain stabilizers, the milk will separate into two layers: a thin, watery milk topped with dense cream. Some recipes call for using just the cream; otherwise, you can simply stir or shake the contents of the can until it's evenly combined.
So once you have it, what do you actually do with it? Let's take a look.
Use it as a Dairy Substitute
Coconut milk can be used as a lactose-free, vegan milk substitute in countless capacities: stir it into your coffee, whip it into cream, or add it to baked goods (more on that later). And if your diet excludes dairy, you may just be surprised by how smooth and creamy dairy-free ice cream can get, whether we're talking salted peanut butter, mint chip, or simple classics like chocolate and vanilla. In fact, once you have our easy master recipe, you can concoct pretty much any flavor your heart desires.
Make Dips and Sauces
Coconut milk on its own might make a pretty unmemorable dip, but add in some sweeteners or savory spices and it's a whole different story. We like it simmered with red curry paste until thickened and then livened up with lime juice, soy sauce, ginger, honey, and fish sauce in a dipping sauce for dumplings. Or change tacks entirely and boil it up with sweetened condensed milk, butter, and a pinch of salt for a sticky-sweet sauce perfect for drizzling
all over grilled pineapple, or pretty much any dessert you please.
Give Cocktails and Smoothies a Tropical Twist
Yes, yes, we all know about Piña Coladas, but coconut milk's great for so much more. Take, for instance, this coconut-banana coquito, an invigorating breakfast shake sweetened with maple syrup.
What's that? You needs the alcohols? Worry not. Try this peachy rum and coconut frozen blended cocktail. Or if you're craving something a little lighter (and less heavy handedly tropical), give The Sunny Getaway a shot: an effervescent mix of Meyer lemon juice, coconut milk, vodka, and ginger beer.
Pair it With Seafood
Seafood loves all things coconut milk. Seriously, it's a major affair—the kind that spans ceviches and curries, noodles and stir-fries. Combine it with curry paste and use it to steam Thai-style mussels, sauce up some rice noodles and shrimp, dress a quinoa-seafood salad, or complete a bowl of DIY instant noodles.
Not a fan of curry paste? Try coconut milk as a poaching liquid for cod à la nage—fish simmered in coconut milk with lemongrass, lime, cilantro, and fish sauce. It also makes a great base for a coconut clam stew seasoned with ginger and turmeric, or an Indian-style shrimp soup.
And Yes, Curries
Technically speaking, "curry" is so broad a term as to be virtually meaningless, and I certainly mentioned several in the seafood section above. But the American concept of curry—the spicy-sweet, thick, creamy, slightly nutty sauce that coats everything from chickpeas and cashews to chicken and potatoes—typically involves its fair share of coconut milk. There's khao soi gai, a northern Thai coconut curry noodle soup and Matsaman curry, which features meaty drumsticks. Nandan khozi, on the other hand, is an Indian-style chicken dish that hails from Kerala. Looking for something you'd find at your local Thai takeout joint (only better)? Try our quick 'n' easy pressure-cooked Thai green chicken curry.
Or leave provenance behind and embrace the ambiguous "curry," like this turmeric-spiked coconut chicken and rice—coconut milk is great for poaching and braising your favorite meats and vegetables. Its sugars even help proteins brown over heat—it's the key to these extra-juicy grilled chicken kebabs. It also keeps this delicate poached chicken breast moist and flavorful, and adds subtle richness to Filipino-style pork adobo.
Remember how I said coconut's a great dairy substitute? Yeah, welcome to coconut dessert land. I'm talking layered puddings, coconut custard pie, and saucy coconut-enhanced islas flotantes. In Thailand, a sweet coconut milk custard called sangkhaya is used as a dip for white bread.
And when it comes to baking, you can add a dose of coconut to everything from cupcakes tres leches cake to this banana, coconut, and sesame seed upside down cake.