All the Possibilities from a Can of Coconut Milk

All the Possibilities from a Can of Coconut Milk

Whether you’re using it in curries, cocktails, or desserts, affordable, shelf-stable coconut milk will significantly enhance your summer dining

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Grocery shopping has gotten more complicated these days. I can’t always find what I need, and I’m not into buying ingredients I’ll only use once, like dairy milk and cream. 

But full-fat, unsweetened, canned coconut milk is always there for me (not to be confused with lite coconut milk, coconut cream, or cream of coconut; see more on those below). It’s cheap, it always seems to be in stock, and it can last for years in my pantry — no biggie if I buy some and don’t need it right away. 

But I always do. 

When I want a cocktail and need a mixer, coconut milk comes to the rescue. If I need a big batch of food but lack inspiration, coconut milk gives new life to my vegetables and spices, transforming them into beautiful curries that I can toss into the slow cooker and then eat for days. Its rich flavor makes my soups and broths come alive, and my breakfasts indulgent. And because it pairs so well with citrus, herbs, and other tropical flavors, I want it even more in the summer.

I’m not lactose intolerant or vegan, but since I don’t keep cream around all that often, coconut cream (the fatty part of the milk that separates from the liquid when chilled) makes for a great substitute for whipping cream when I need it. And that means that I can turn my  full-fat coconut milk into caramel sauce, ice cream, or even a delightful bisque whenever I like (recipes for these below!).

Full-fat, unsweetened, canned coconut milk is nothing short of a miracle ingredient in these uncertain times. Read on for 18 coconut milk recipes that will convince you to add it to your grocery cart this summer. But first, let’s answer a few simple questions you might have.

Jump ahead to:

Canned coconut milk basics >>

Breakfast recipes with coconut milk >>

Coconut milk cocktails >>

Savory coconut milk recipes >>

Coconut milk desserts >>

Dairy-free coconut milk substitutes >>

Canned coconut milk basics

You’re at the grocery store facing a bunch of cans, and you’re wondering:

What is coconut milk? Coconut milk is a creamy liquid that’s made by grating fresh coconut, cooking it with water, and then straining the liquid. The liquid naturally contains both a thicker component and a thinner component that separate on standing but go back together when you shake or stir the can. 

What’s the difference between coconut milk and coconut cream? As coconut milk stands, the rich fat (the coconut cream) naturally rises to the top and the thinner coconut milk sinks. You can skim off the cream if you like and use it to saute curry paste before making a curry (with the rest of the can) or make recipes like Coconut Whipped Cream. Both coconut milk and coconut cream taste fresh and fruity without being sweet.

What is lite coconut milk? Aka light coconut milk, this has had some of the coconut cream removed so it’s less rich and has fewer calories than regular coconut milk, but is also less flavorful.

What is cream of coconut? Cream of coconut milk is made from coconut cream with sugar added. It’s a sweet product that’s used for drinks and desserts.

How do you use canned coconut milk? In so many ways! Try coconut milk in the recipes that follow for breakfast and dessert, in rich curries and soups, in cocktails, and as a dairy-free substitute.

How long can you refrigerate coconut milk? Transfer any leftover coconut milk from the can to an airtight container and refrigerate up to 1 week.

Breakfast recipes with coconut milk

You can plan on a happy day ahead when you start the morning with a cold or hot breakfast featuring the gentle tropical flavor and lovely creaminess of coconut milk.

Coffee Smoothie

For the on-the-go breakfaster, or anyone looking for a healthy indulgance, this smoothie recipe lets you enjoy your coffee and your bananas all in one big, frothy glass. A quarter-cup of coconut milk makes it plenty rich and indulgent without being wildly caloric.

Blueberry-Lemon Chia Pudding

Yummly Original

Coconut milk makes chia seed pudding firmer and more flavorful than other non-dairy milks, and this combination of flavors with blueberries and lemon takes the pudding to another level. You’ll need to let the pudding stand in the fridge overnight to get thick and creamy. With a little maple syrup the next day, this pudding becomes an indulgent, sweet breakfast.

Coconut French Toast

Soft, Hawaiian sweet bread, dunked in eggy coconut milk batter with a sprinkling of toasted coconut, is as exciting as breakfast gets, IMO. I love that this comes together in 14 short minutes, too. If you don’t want to go full-on tropical, you can also just make standard French toast using any other soft bread you have on hand and skip the coconut flakes on top.

Coconut Milk Porridge

All you need for this filling, hearty breakfast porridge are oats, creamy coconut milk, and whatever type of topping you’d like — blueberries are delicious, but bananas, raisins, or other dried fruit would be great. The recipe also calls for vanilla, which will give your oats extra flavor. I also love to sprinkle flax seeds and sea salt on my oatmeal, followed by a drizzle of maple syrup. This is a great way to incorporate healthy whole grains into your day, and the coconut milk makes them super tasty. For a gluten-free porridge, choose oats that are labeled gluten-free.

Coconut milk cocktails

Treat yourself to an end-of-the-workday or weekend libation featuring your now-favorite and handiest ingredient in a can!

Coconut Milk White Russian

White Russians are such tasty drinks, and so easy to throw together, calling for just three ingredients — vodka, coconut milk, and Kahlúa. Feel free to substitute rum for the vodka, if you like, and if you don’t have Kahlúa, try simple syrup and coffee. For an extra rich drink, you can skim the coconut cream off the top of the can and use just that (chill the can first, if you like, to make it easy to take off the cream).

Creamy Coconut Margaritas

Tequila, lime juice, coconut milk and ice…this is a perfect summer cocktail if there ever was one. As a lover of all things coconut, I think this zesty, classic drink gets a major upgrade with the addition of creamy coconut flavor. Plus, instead of a salty-sweet rim, this cocktail incorporates toasted coconut flakes, making it super fun. 

Savory coconut milk recipes

The first thing that comes to mind with a can of coconut milk might be a curry chicken, and we have two versions, one with Thai flavors and another with Indian. But you'll find that can handy for making coconut soup, lentils, and shrimp, too.

Thai Chicken Coconut Curry

Thai curry recipes have a lot of fans on Yummly, and this one, made with red curry paste, a can of coconut milk, chicken breasts, and fresh spinach, is among the most popular. Even better, it takes only 30 minutes. Serve it with fresh cilantro for an extra pop of color.

Coconut Milk Shrimp

Shrimp and coconut milk are a match made in culinary heaven, and this straightforward Brazilian dish takes that combo to the next level with lime, cilantro, tomatoes, carrot, and just a little heat. Coming together in just 30 minutes, this dish is juicy, healthy, and bursting with tropical coconut flavor. Just add a side of rice — basmati rice, brown rice, or whatever you have on hand. I can see this becoming a dinner staple of mine during the hot weeknights ahead. 

Carrot Ginger Bisque

Here’s a delightfully healthy, refreshing soup with bright, naturally sweet flavors. I love how well coconut milk works in bisques, giving them richness and added flavor (try swapping it in the next time you make a bisque with seafood!). This bisque gets added creaminess from a sweet potato. If you don’t have coconut chips to layer on top, try a sprinkle of herbs. You can’t go wrong with this versatile soup.

Spinach and Green Lentil Dahl

You don’t need every single seasoning listed here to make this lovely dahl (legume curry) but consider each one you do add — curry powder, fresh ginger, cumin seeds, turmeric, and garam masala — to be a way to heighten and deepen its taste. Coconut milk’s richness carries flavors extremely well, enhancing and marrying the taste of each ingredient. Curries are great ways to make what I call “fridge meals” — combinations of whatever beans and vegetables I have laying around — and this core recipe, made with two kinds of lentils, tomatoes, and spinach, can serve as a fantastic template for that. Try canned chickpeas instead of lentils, or change up the veggies with cauliflower, say.

Slow Cooker Coconut Chicken Curry

What a powerhouse of a recipe. Chicken, coconut milk, cashews, ginger, and an array of warm Indian flavors make for an incredible meal. It’s also low fuss — just combine all these delicious ingredients and let your crock pot do the rest of the work! And prepare your family for all the incredible smells that will permeate your home as this dish simmers for hours.

Coconut milk desserts

Yes and yes. That’s the right answer to “is today the right day for a coconut milk dessert?”

Coconut Milk Quinoa Fruit Salad

This honey, lime, and coconut fruit salad with quinoa could very well double as a savory side dish. Or add greens, salt, and protein, and you have yourself a perfect dinner. But I’m including it here as a healthy dessert option, because the combination of soft, crumbly quinoa, juicy summer fruits, honey, lime, and coconut milk all sounds pretty sweet and satisfying to me. That’s the thing about coconut milk — it’s got a chameleon-like quality that can swing a dish right into sweet or savory territory, depending on what you pair with it. This is on the top of my list to bring to a socially distanced picnic this summer.

Coconut Rice Pudding

Coconut milk rice pudding with mango happens to be one of my favorite desserts, ever. The rich, warm pudding under the cool, bright mango is just heaven. Plus, it’s very easy to make. This simple, budget-friendly recipe calls for both whole milk and coconut milk, but you can get away with using just the coconut milk if you like. And while mango is a personal favorite, banana, raisins, or blueberries would also be great toppings. And any white rice you have will do, by the way.

Summer Berry-Coconut Milk Ice Pops 

Bright berries and thick, rich coconut milk are fabulous together, and even better in popsicle form. These gorgeous ice pops have all the flavor and brightness of summer with the richness and coolness of creamy coconut milk, making them a perfect treat for a hot day. A dash of cardamom gives them a hint of spice and sophistication.

Lime Coconut Mug Cake

If you're craving coconut cake (and who isn’t) but don't have time for a full-on production, this mug cake, with the classic coconut lime flavor combo, will make you happy. Plus, it's ready in only 15 minutes!

Dairy-free milk substitutes using coconut milk

Whether you’re vegan or lactose intolerant, or just love the flavor and convenience of cooking with coconut milk, these are great recipes to have in your repertoire.

How To Make Coconut Whipped Cream

Another use for that spare can of coconut milk that’s been sitting on your shelf? Homemade whipped cream! All you need to make a fluffy, vegan-friendly, lactose-free whipped cream is coconut cream skimmed from the top of the can, sugar, and vanilla. By beating the coconut cream as you would dairy cream, you get a blissfully light whipped topping that is delectable on top of fruit, chocolate, sundaes, and more. 

How To Turn Coconut Milk Into Caramel

You can also make your very own caramel sauce with coconut milk! Just bring coconut milk, maple syrup, and brown sugar to a boil and then cook down until they’re reduced by half. Stir in vanilla and a little salt, plus a buttery vegan spread (or coconut oil) for a mouthwatering homemade topping.

Homemade Coconut Milk Ice Cream

Coconut milk, sugar, and vanilla add up to simple, divine ice cream. Because coconut milk is so darn flavorful, it doesn’t need much else to shine. By chilling the coconut milk for at least 4 hours, you’ll be able to easily scoop out the cream and add sugar and vanilla to taste (you don’t need much)! Whip the ingredients to blend, then freeze in an ice cream maker until firm. This dreamy, clean coconut ice cream is a fantastic option for vegans and for folks who don’t do lactose. 

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