6 Genius Ways to Use Canned Coconut Milk

Stock up on coconut milk cans to create creamy concoctions—plus other uses for this milk substitute.

unlabeled metal can of coconut milk on a palm tree leaf with 2 brown coconuts in the background
Photo: happy_lark/Getty Images

Coconut milk used to be an ingredient I would buy to use in one recipe and then waste the rest as it languished in my fridge without further use. Now, coconut milk has become a standing item on my shopping list, and I find myself using it weekly in my kitchen and personal care regimen.

What is Coconut Milk?

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

Choosing the Right Type

Canned coconut milk differs from the boxed stuff you find next to almond milk, which tends to be thinner and has 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 from the juice (also referred to as coconut water). That is different from cream of coconut, which contains added sugar and is not what we are referring to when we talk about coconut milk here. And one more thing: Don't bother buying light coconut milk. It's just the real stuff watered down, and you can always add water yourself 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 use this inexpensive and long-lasting pantry staple.

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Frozen Drinks

Coconut milk adds ultimate creaminess to frozen drinks, whether 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 the other ingredients for a creamy, thick beverage. The trick is to blend the can of coconut milk for 30 seconds before pouring it into an ice cube tray to combine the thick, luscious coconut cream with the coconut water. Let freeze, and pop the cubes out when 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 enjoy a tropical-feeling happy hour, even if sitting in your living room.

Recipes to try:

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Curries, Soups, and Stews

This is many cooks' gateway into the world of cooking with coconut milk. It 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 flavor.

Coconut milk works wonderfully with Asian-style flavor profiles, like Thai or Indian, but is also present in many Latin American and Caribbean recipes. Paired with seafood, it's a match made in heaven, so crack open a can whenever you're cooking a seafood stew; I highly recommend trying a coconut clam stew. Coconut milk is also an excellent dairy-free way to make the creamiest vegetable soups—just sub equal amounts of it for milk or cream.

Recipes to try:

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Grains

Grains soak up the nutty flavor of coconut milk, and the 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. 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. Add a few pinches of salt to balance out the mild sweetness of the coconut.

Recipes to try:

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Baking

Coconut milk is an excellent non-dairy alternative when baking your favorite cookies, cakes, and muffins, and it 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: Add a little water to your full-fat coconut milk to get a thinner consistency.

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. Chocolate, fruit, caramel—what doesn't pair with coconut?

Recipes to try:

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Hot Beverages

This one is fairly self-explanatory but somehow never occurred to me until recently. Try using coconut milk in coffee, tea, or hot chocolate for a decadent twist on your daily beverage of choice. It's a great way to keep morning drinks interesting. Use a milk frother to ensure smooth consistency and that no chunks of coconut cream float to the top.

A favorite evening beverage has been a steaming mug of golden milk. Heat coconut milk on the stovetop, and once warm, blend with ground turmeric, ginger, cinnamon, and a little 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 (don't shake before opening) and whip it up to top pretty much anything with a dollop of whipped coconut cream.

Recipes to try:

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Hair and Body Treatments

If you're tired 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 strands soft and shiny; it also smells delicious. Hair and body treatments are fairly easy to whip up at home and can be made with ingredients you probably already have on hand.

For a straightforward treatment, add coconut milk directly from the can to your locks and leave it 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 essential 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 them great for skincare, clearing pores while hydrating skin. Combine canned coconut milk with a little castile soap and honey for a daily cleanser that will leave you glowing.

Recipes to try:

  • Rice, Coconut Milk, and Brown Sugar as Body Treatment
  • Avocado-Based Hair Conditioner
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