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How Do I Choose the Best Coconut Milk?

M.C. Huguelet
M.C. Huguelet

Coconut milk, a white, creamy liquid derived from the meat of the coconut, is a primary ingredient in many Asian and Caribbean dishes and can be used as a dairy milk substitute. To choose the best coconut milk, you should begin by considering what the milk will be used for. In addition, you should decide whether a product’s nutritional profile and shelf life are priorities.

Before purchasing coconut milk, you should think about how the milk will be used. Canned coconut milk is generally unsweetened and has a fairly thick consistency. This type of coconut milk can be incorporated into savory dishes like curries and soups as well as sweet dishes such as rice pudding, but is generally too thick for use as a beverage. Coconut milks sold in cartons are typically much thinner than their canned counterparts due to dilution with water, and also tend to contain a sweetener. Many people find that these products make a good dairy milk substitute, but due to their sweetness they are not generally recommended for use in savory recipes.

Desiccated coconut, which can be used to make coconut milk.
Desiccated coconut, which can be used to make coconut milk.

Once you have decided whether a thick, unsweetened coconut milk or a thin, sweetened one is best, consider whether nutrition is an important concern for you. The milk of the coconut is naturally high in saturated fat and calories. If you are attempting to limit your intake of high-fat, high-calorie foods, you may want to choose light coconut milk. It is important to note, however, that light versions of the milk tend to lack the creamy texture and rich taste of the regular version.

Coconut milk.
Coconut milk.

Additionally, before selecting coconut milk, you should think about whether its shelf life is important to you. Canned coconut milks tend to have a long shelf life, remaining fresh for up to two years as long as they are unopened. Once opened, the milk must be refrigerated and used within two days.

The shelf life of coconut milks sold in cartons can vary depending on carton type. Some cartons do not require refrigeration until they have been opened, but must be refrigerated after opening, at which point they stay fresh for about a week. Others must be refrigerated at all times, and remain fresh for five to seven days after they have been opened. In general, a product’s packaging will indicate how it should be stored and when it will expire.

Discussion Comments


Helpful hint: Do *not* mistake cream of coconut for coconut milk! Cream of coconut is what you use in pina coladas! It's kind of like the coconut version of sweetened condensed milk.

I sent the husband to the store for coconut milk, and even gave him a brand name and description. What does he come home with? Cream of coconut! I had to go back myself and when I showed him the two cans, he said well, he saw the coconut milk, but thought the cream of coconut looked like it would "taste better." I just shook my head.


I love cooking with coconut milk, and I usually get the canned kind. One thing I look for is to make sure it's all natural and doesn't have a ton of extra ingredients or preservatives. In general, canned coconut milk doesn't usually have a lot of extras, but I always check if I'm using a different brand, just to make sure.

Lowfat coconut milk is also good, and is very good if you're trying to make a lighter dish. It tastes fine and works for everything that regular coconut milk does.

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    • Desiccated coconut, which can be used to make coconut milk.
      Desiccated coconut, which can be used to make coconut milk.
    • Coconut milk.
      By: picsfive
      Coconut milk.
    • Coconut milk is derived from the meat inside a coconut.
      By: bergamont
      Coconut milk is derived from the meat inside a coconut.