There are many milk alternatives made from nuts and other foods, each with different characteristics. One of the most versatile is coconut milk, a staple in the cuisine of most tropical countries around the world.
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Like cow milk, it separates into thinner "milk" and thicker "cream," which can be stirred together or used separately. Also like cow milk, it tolerates heat well and can be boiled or steamed for various purposes.
Heating Coconut Milk
Like heavy cream, it will stand up to cooking and boiling, becoming more concentrated as water evaporates from it. Coconut milk doesn't "break," or curdle, when it 's heated, making it a valued sauce ingredient. The same characteristic makes it a candidate for steamer drinks.
Coconut milk is a rich food, containing nearly 20 percent fat by weight, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture Nutrient Database. In cuisine from India and Thailand, its richness is used to mellow the sharp flavors of spicy food and make it more palatable.
Steamer drinks are beverages based on steamed milk, containing anything from flavoring extracts to liqueurs, syrups or coffee and tea. Most coffee shops sell a variety of steamer drinks, both coffee based and coffee-free. Given the low cost of milk and the high volume of air introduced during the steaming process, these beverages are very profitable.
Soy milk is often used for non-dairy steamer drinks, but coconut milk also works very well. It has the advantage of a rich, well-liked flavor of its own, which is not generally the case with other milk substitutes.
Coconut Steamer Drinks
Coconut milk's mild flavor complements both coffee and tea, making it a valid choice for caffeinated steamer drinks. It also works well with vanilla, almond extract, rum, chocolate and a variety of other flavorings, making it suitable for non-caffeinated beverages.
Coffee shops use the pressurized steam of their espresso machines to heat and aerate the coconut milk into foam, but an espresso machine isn't necessary. The coconut milk can be boiled on your stovetop, then frothed with a milk frother, hand mixer or a handheld whisk.
Coconut Water vs. Coconut Milk
Coconut milk isn't the thin liquid found inside the nut, which is called coconut water. Rather, coconut milk is made by soaking shredded coconut flesh in boiling water for up to two hours. Fats, protein and other solids dissolve into the water, giving it a rich flavor and white appearance.
The milk is then separated from the coconut's flesh by straining it through a cloth, then wringing as much moisture as possible from the pulp. The rich, fatty "cream" will rise to the top if it's allowed to sit.