Ingredient Intelligence

What’s the Difference Between Boxed, Canned, and Powdered Coconut Milk?

published May 1, 2014
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(Image credit: Emily Han)

Coconut milk is a pantry staple for us — there are so many delicious ways to cook with it! You can even make your own coconut milk at home. But if you’re buying it at the store, should you get the kind in a can or a box? What about BPA? And did you know it also comes in powdered and concentrated forms? We’ve sorted out the pros and cons of each.

Canned Coconut Milk

Canned coconut milk and coconut cream are widely available these days, with mainstream and health food stores often carrying at least one brand, and Asian grocery stores often carrying dozens of brands.

Some brands contain only coconut and water, while others include preservatives, emulsifiers, or stabilizers. Guar gum is a common additive; although it is naturally derived (from the guar bean), it can give some people digestive problems. A good additive-free canned product is Savoy Coconut Cream, which is very flavorful. Coconut cream is thicker than coconut milk, but it may be diluted with water as desired.

BPA is another concern with canned coconut milk. There are at least two BPA-free brands: Native Forest and Trader Joe’s Light Coconut Milk. Native Forest is organic, but contains guar gum. Trader Joe’s is additive-free, but light coconut milk is not always desirable. Unfortunately I find both of them lacking in flavor.

When recipes call for coconut milk and don’t specify, they usually mean the canned stuff.

Boxed Coconut Milk

Aseptic cartons or boxes are a good way to avoid BPA. Depending on the brand, boxed coconut milk and coconut cream may contain only coconut and water, or it may contain additives similar to those in canned coconut milk.

Thai brand Aroy-D makes 100 percent coconut milk in 8.5-ounce and 33.8-ounce cartons. The flavor is not as rich as some canned coconut milks, but it’s a solid option if this package suits your needs. The smaller-sized carton is also convenient for those times when a typical 14-ounce can would be too much.

Boxed coconut milk can be used just liked canned coconut milk, in everything from curries to soups to baked goods, so you can swap one for the other depending on your preference.

Coconut Milk Powder

Powdered coconut milk and cream is made from dried coconut meat and is usually mixed with milk or casein and other additives. It has all of the flavor of coconut milk, except it’s a powder. It can be mixed with water to make as little or as much coconut milk as you need, and as thin or thick as you like. It generally comes in space-saving packets or sometimes in cans (in which case BPA might be an issue).

Not only can it be reconstituted with water to make an easy and affordable substitute for canned or boxed coconut milk, but it can also be sprinkled into smoothies before blending or whisked into a sweet glaze for cakes or doughnuts.

Concentrated Coconut Cream

Concentrated coconut cream, paste, or butter is made purely from coconut meat with no additives. It contains fiber so it is not completely smooth, but it can be diluted with water as desired. It typically comes in glass jars or plastic pouches.

Since it is so much thicker and richer, it’s often called for in desserts. It can be whipped just like heavy cream to create a vegan dessert topping or used to flavor frostings or glazes.

Refrigerated Coconut Milk

Refrigerated coconut milk is more of a beverage than a cooking ingredient. It is often watered down and filled with additives like carrageenan, guar gum, sweeteners.

If a recipe calls for coconut milk, you should generally avoid this type. It can, however, be splashed into your iced coffee or morning smoothie.