5 Mistakes to Avoid with Canned Coconut Milk

updated Aug 21, 2022
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If you’re a fan of Thai curries or Indian dishes like chicken tikka masala, canned coconut milk likely has a permanent spot on your grocery list. A few splashes add a creamy richness and nutty, slightly sweet flavor to everything from soups to desserts.

Here are five mistakes to avoid when reaching for this pantry favorite.

1. Using sweetened coconut milk.

Although it might not specify, almost any recipe that calls for canned coconut milk is referring to the unsweetened variety. Cans of sweetened condensed coconut milk and cream of coconut — both of which contain added sugar — are often sitting on shelves near the coconut milk, so be sure you’re buying the right can.

Follow this tip: Be sure you’re buying unsweetened coconut milk. It’s already naturally sweet, so you don’t need the extra sugar, unless the recipe specifically calls for it.

2. Using lite coconut milk and full-fat interchangeably.

You may be looking to reduce the fat content of the recipe you’re making, but swapping lite canned coconut milk for full-fat might not be the best idea. Just like with regular milk, sometimes the swap will work, but sometimes it can negatively affect the overall texture of the dish. For example, you can get away with it if you’re just adding a splash to soup or a smoothie to lend creaminess, but if you’re using it in a cake or to make vegan ice cream, the texture will be less rich and possibly a bit grainy.

Follow this tip: For the best results, use full-fat coconut milk if the recipe calls for it.

3. Using coconut cream instead of coconut milk.

Cans of coconut cream look almost identical to cans of coconut milk (and they’re also unsweetened) so you might be fooled into thinking they’re the same thing. Coconut cream, however, is much thicker and richer and contains less water, so it’s an entirely different product. It’s typically used to make vegan sweets like pudding, cream pie, whipped cream, and panna cotta.

Follow this tip: Read the label clearly to be sure you’re buying coconut milk and not coconut cream.

4. Not shaking or stirring the can.

If the coconut milk you bought doesn’t contain any stabilizers, the richest, creamiest part of the milk will naturally rise to the top. It’s totally OK if this happens — you just want to mix it into the rest of the milk before using.

Follow this tip: Shake the can before opening it or gently stir it once open to ensure the cream on top mixes into the thinner milk.

5. Storing leftover coconut milk in the can.

Sometimes all you need in a splash or two of coconut milk in a recipe. If you have leftovers, you might be tempted to cover the can with plastic wrap and toss it in the fridge. However, it’s best to get the remainder out of the can for storage, as the milk could develop a metallic taste.

Follow this tip: Transfer leftover coconut milk to an airtight container and refrigerate for up to five days. You can also freeze leftover coconut milk, but it will separate when defrosted. Use a blender or immersion blender to re-emulsify.