If you haven't stocked up on this shelf-stable pantry all-star yet, now's the time to do so.
Unsweetened canned coconut milk — not to be confused with the watered-down coconut milk found in boxes or bottles — is thick, creamy and offers just a hint of tropical vibes to any recipe you add it to.
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It's also dairy- and lactose-free.
But there's no standard to what ingredients appear on the label, so it's up to you to scout out the simplest and most nutritious.
"Coconut," "coconut milk," and "coconut extract" are one and the same on that ingredient list, but you'll want a brand with no added sugar.
Buy Unsweetened Canned Coconut Milk
Coconut milk is rich in electrolytes, including potassium, iron and magnesium, plus it's an excellent source of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs).
"MCTs are shown to increase your metabolism and aid in weight loss because your body uses these more quickly than other types of fats," explains Mary Stewart, RD, LD, a registered dietitian and the owner of Cultivate Nutrition in Dallas.
But coconut milk is also high in saturated fat (8 grams per quarter-cup serving).
"Coconut milk is high in saturated fat — particularly lauric acid — and the jury is still out on exactly how it affects heart health, so, like with everything, don't go overboard," says Marisa Moore, RDN, LD, a culinary and integrative dietitian in Atlanta, Georgia. "Still, it can certainly fit into a balanced diet."
The key with most foods, including high-fat ones like coconut milk, is moderation and variety, Stewart says.
Although some studies link saturated fat to an increased risk for heart disease, one January 2018 British Medical Journal study suggests the saturated fat in coconut milk may actually affect your blood lipid levels differently than other types of saturated fats.
"Does this mean we load up every meal with coconut milk? Absolutely not. Just like any other high-fat, high-calorie food — even if it may be the healthier version — you must take your portion size into consideration," Stewart adds.
Don’t have a can handy yet still want to try these coconut milk recipes? DIY it!
“You can make your own coconut milk using the same process you'd use to make nut-based plant milk. Simply blend coconut meat (the flesh) with filtered warm water, strain and refrigerate it,” Moore says.
Once you have your homemade or canned coconut milk handy, put it to delicious use with these cooking and baking ideas.
1. Simmer It With Rice
"To make one of my go-to Caribbean side dishes, I use coconut milk instead of water to cook rice, and then stir in peas," Moore says.
Coconut-infused rice has a subtle sweetness to it and is delicious on its own.
It goes especially well with Asian-, Indian- and Carribean-inspired meals but can also complement a simple protein and veggie dish.
A Recipe to Try
Curry Sweet Potato and Rice Salad (use half water and half unsweetened coconut milk to cook the rice)
2. Poach Chicken in It
Instead of water, poach (or boil) chicken in coconut milk for flavorful, tender results.
Here's how to do it:
- Place chicken breast in a medium saucepan, and then add enough coconut milk to cover it by 2 to 3 inches or so.
- Add lid to saucepan, turn heat on to high and bring coconut milk to a boil.
- Once boiling, turn heat down to medium and cook for 10 minutes.
- Remove chicken from pan and check internal temperature with an instant-read thermometer.
- The temperature should be 165 degrees Fahrenheit. If it's lower than that, return the chicken to the warm coconut milk and test the temperature every 3 to 4 minutes until it reaches 165 degrees.
- Allow to rest for about 5 minutes before slicing and using in a salad, sandwich or enjoying alongside your favorite side dish.
3. Add It to Overnight Oats
Easy to make ahead for a weeks' worth of breakfasts — and even easier to make it your own with unique mix-ins and toppings — overnight oats are one of our favorite ways to use coconut milk.
Use it instead of regular milk or yogurt to soak the oats, try coconut milk.
A two-to-one ratio of milk to oats works best. Then, garnish as desired.
Recipes to Try
4. Use It in Pancake Batter
Coconut milk can even upgrade your flapjacks in minutes.
Rather than using water or milk in your boxed pancake mix or homemade pancake recipe, try stirring in some coconut milk to lend a tiny tropical element that will have everyone asking, "hmm... what is that?" in the best way.
5. Blend It Into a Smoothie or Smoothie Bowl
"Using coconut milk as your liquid for your fruit and vegetable smoothie will increase the thickness and creaminess and add a tropical spin," Stewart says.
For any smoothie bowl or smoothie recipe that calls for yogurt or milk, feel free to trade that dairy out for an equal amount of coconut milk.
6. Use It Instead of Broth in Soup
For some soup recipes, you can either fully replace or swap part of your broth for creamy coconut milk, Stewart says.
Try an equal amount of coconut milk instead of cream in chowders or cream soups.
Opting for coconut milk works best for soups that feature flavors like masala, turmeric and ginger.
7. Stir It Into a Sauce
Similarly to soup, you can swap the cream in cheese sauces like alfredo with coconut milk.
"Or, add a splash to calm down a spicy sauce or use it as the base of a curry to complement warm spices like turmeric, coriander and red chilis," Stewart says.
8. Scoop Up Vegan Ice Cream
Moore adores the luxurious texture that results from dairy-free vegan ice cream made with coconut milk at its core.
Since it's so silky as-is, you don't even need a fancy ice cream maker to whip up a batch (as the recipes below prove).
9. Freeze a Batch of Ice Pops
While icy juice-based pops are good, coconut milk-based ones are creamier and more akin to fudge pops or ice cream in texture.
Try coconut milk instead of water or yogurt as the base for pineapple, coconut or chocolate ice pops.