Stock up and get busy creating creamy concoctions.

By Laura Fisher
Updated April 02, 2020
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Coconut milk used to be one of those ingredients that I would buy for use in one recipe, and then end up wasting the rest as it languished in my fridge without a use. Now, coconut milk has become a standing item on my shopping list, and I find myself using it in my kitchen and personal care regimen weekly.

First, some basics. Canned coconut milk is made by shredding coconut meat and simmering it in water until a creamy paste is formed, then strained to separate the meat from the liquid. Coconut milk is naturally dairy-free, making it an excellent substitute for regular milk in a multitude of recipes. It has only a mild coconut flavor, so even if you don’t like coconut, you might still find that you can use coconut milk in recipes without being bothered by the taste.

Canned coconut milk is different from the boxed stuff you find next to the almond milk, which tends to be thinner and have additives. The canned milk should have only one ingredient: coconut. If you see coconut cream, this is the higher-fat portion of the coconut milk separated out from the juice (also referred to as coconut water). This is different from cream of coconut, which contains added sugar and is not what we are referring to when we talk about canned coconut milk here. And one more thing: don’t bother buying light coconut milk. It’s basically just the real stuff watered down, and you can always add water if it’s too thick for you.

Now that we are all on the same page about the magical elixir that is canned coconut milk, here are some creative ways you can make use of this inexpensive and long-lasting pantry staple.

1

Canned coconut milk adds ultimate creaminess to frozen drinks, whether they be healthy breakfast smoothies, indulgent milkshakes, or frosty cocktails. You can add the milk straight from the can, but I like to make coconut milk ice cubes and throw them into the blender with my other ingredients for a creamy, thick bevvie. The trick here is to blend the can of coconut milk for 30 seconds before pouring into your ice cube tray to combine the thick, luscious coconut cream with the coconut water. Let freeze, and pop the cubes out any time you want to blend up a frozen concoction.

When it comes to alcoholic drinks, branch out beyond the Piña Colada and try using coconut milk in a White Russian or any cocktail with rum. One of my simple favorites is coconut milk, rum, vanilla extract, and a touch of sugar. Shake or blend and have yourself a tropical-feeling happy hour, even if you’re just sitting in your living room.

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2

This is many cooks’ gateway into the world of cooking with canned coconut milk. Coconut milk adds richness and depth of flavor to soups, curries, and stews, and its natural fat content tames spices of all levels, turning down the heat while retaining the flavor.

Coconut milk typically works best with Asian-style flavor profiles, like Thai or Indian, but is also present in many South American recipes. Seafood and coconut milk are a match made in heaven, so crack open a can whenever you’re doing a seafood stew (I would highly recommend trying a coconut clam stew). Coconut milk is also an excellent dairy-free way to make the creamiest vegetable soups—just sub out milk or cream for equal amounts of coconut milk.

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3

Grains soak up the nutty flavor of coconut milk, and the end result is an impossibly creamy mouthful of rice, oats, quinoa, or your grain of choice. Need something tasty for breakfast? Try using coconut milk in your overnight oats for a refreshing take on the breakfast staple. If it’s a little too thick for your liking, use half coconut milk and half almond milk, which has a thinner consistency.

While sweet grain-based dishes are a natural go-to, don’t be afraid to use coconut milk in your savory sides, as well. Cilantro-lime coconut rice is the perfect bed for grilled chicken or fish, and can be made by simply cooking rice in coconut milk, fluffing with a fork, and stirring in lime juice and chopped cilantro. I add a few pinches of salt to balance out the mild sweetness of the coconut.

Recipes to try:

4

Canned coconut milk is an excellent non-dairy alternative when baking up your favorite cookies, cakes, and muffins, and can be used in a 1:1 ratio when substituting. Make sure to pay attention to the type of dairy you’re subbing in for, though. If the recipe calls for heavy cream, you might want to take more of the coconut cream off the top of the can. Need low-fat milk? No problem: just add a little water to your full fat coconut milk to get a thinner consistency.

You will have to keep in mind that coconut milk adds a very subtle coconut flavor to your finished product, so if you’re baking something with a flavor profile that wouldn’t go well with coconut, you might want to steer clear. However, I’m having trouble thinking of a baked good that would clash with coconut flavor. Chocolate, fruit, caramel... what doesn’t pair with coconut?

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This one is fairly self explanatory, but somehow never occurred to me until recently. Try using coconut milk in your coffee, tea, or hot chocolate for a decadent twist on your daily beverage of choice. I've been stuck at home these past few weeks and missing my occasional fancy coffee shop latte, and this is a great way to keep my morning drink interesting. I use a milk frother to ensure smooth consistency and no chunks of coconut cream are floating on top.

My favorite evening beverage lately has been a steaming mug of golden milk. Just heat up canned coconut milk on the stovetop, and once warm, blend with ground turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, and a little bit of maple syrup. Slightly spicy and sweet, it’s the perfect way to wind down at the end of the day. You can also take the thick, coconut cream off the top of the can (just don't shake prior to opening) and whip it up to top pretty much anything with a dollop of whipped coconut cream.

Recipes to try:

6

If you’re sick of the taste of coconut milk but still have a few cans left in the pantry, you can use the creamy elixir to moisturize your hair and skin. Coconut milk is a perfect base for a hair mask to keep your strands soft and shiny and smells delicious, to boot. Hair and body treatments are fairly easy to whip up at home and can be made with ingredients you probably already have on hand.

To keep things really straightforward you can add coconut milk straight from the can to your locks and leave on for about 20 minutes (covering your head with a shower cap to keep from dripping coconut all over the place). Feeling fancy? Add in a few drops of essentials oils. If your hair tends to get a little oily, only apply the mask to your ends and avoid the roots.

Coconuts have antibacterial properties that also make it great for skincare, clearing your pores while hydrating your skin at the same time. Combine canned coconut milk with a little castile soap and honey for a daily cleanser that will leave you glowing.

RELATED: The 8 Best Foods to Eat for Healthy-Looking Skin

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