What are the general principles for cooking with coconut milk?
February 20, 2014 11:08 PM   Subscribe

As the years go by I find myself craving coconut milk more and more, but I'm not quite sure how to incorporate it into my diet. I'm pretty bad at following recipes, so usually I just use my past experience with ingredients to guide me in how to use them. I don't have much experience with coconut milk, however, so I'm hoping that folks on AskMe can give me some general principles to guild me instead.

The only things I know how to do with it are cook it with sweet potatoes and onions, or to combine it with fruit. I'd like to expand my repertoire to include cooking coconut milk with meat, fish, vegetables, grains, and whatever else you can think of. Can anyone on AskMe give me some general principles for cooking these ingredients with coconut milk? For example, should I stew meat in it, or add it towards the end? Is it the same for vegetables? Which vegetables and meats work well with coconut milk and which don't? Are there certain spices and aromatics that work especially well with it, or any ones that I should avoid? Any and all advice on working with coconut milk would be much appreciated. Recipes will not be followed, but if you want to include them to illustrate a point (or for the benefit of others who are reading this thread) then please do so.
posted by sam_harms to Food & Drink (24 answers total) 52 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Guide me, I mean, not guild me. I guessing there's no coconut milk guild.
posted by sam_harms at 11:12 PM on February 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

Best answer: Add it to the water used to cook rice or other grains.
posted by threeants at 11:21 PM on February 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

put it in curries for leftover meat.
posted by bruce at 11:30 PM on February 20, 2014

Soups! It's mega in Thai cooking, try some Tom Ka Gai. If I could only ever eat one thing again it might be that.
posted by Iteki at 11:34 PM on February 20, 2014 [3 favorites]

Get one or more of the flavors of Mae Ploy brand curry pastes (available at most asian grocery stores and available but overpriced on amazon). I usually just mix the curry paste (be careful with how much the first time) and then add veggies/tofu and cook until all the veggies are done. This works with meat as well, I just don't cook with it.
posted by kbuxton at 12:12 AM on February 21, 2014

For an exotic dessert† try the Thai dish Tab Tim Grob.

† We're talking an East Asian "dessert" here so far from decadent, containing vegetables and probably actually better for you than many Western "health food" items, yet still totally delicious.
posted by XMLicious at 12:23 AM on February 21, 2014

Best answer: For medium slow meat or chicken stews, or if the sauce is cooked a little ahead of time, for fish curries. If you're thinking Indonesian, and very roughly averagey, it's rather being combined with lemon grass, lime leaves, and a coriander/cumin/turmeric mix and the likes than with a chili-soy-saucy type of basic taste. Galangal, lots of hot peppers and shrimp paste together with coconut milk as a base is also something one encounters. For all applies that rather a lot of blender-purreed onions and/or garlic form the body of the sauce.

An easy way to a useable coconut milky substance (as opposed to the thick, soup-in-a-canny, creamy commercial coconut "milk") is to combine dry shredded unsweetened coconut and almost boiling water in a blender/food processor, mix it for a while, and strain it through a cloth, pressing a little toward the end (I split a cloth that way…). You can do this twice with the same batch, the stuff you get out of that is great for cooking.
posted by Namlit at 12:35 AM on February 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

Samoan Oka is a crispy summer salad similar to cerviche. I like to make this with tuna, but any firm white fish will do.
posted by BAKERSFIELD! at 12:50 AM on February 21, 2014

I made laksa for the first time recently from this recipe and was surprised at how easy it was to get good results at home. I love spicy coconutty soups and for me lately, laksa is number 1. You can also obtain laksa spice kits that take the sourcing and grinding work out for you that would be a decent easy way to consume more cocunut milk.
posted by kaspen at 1:33 AM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

For rice or other grains, replace part of the cooking liquid with coconut milk. A favorite thing to do is just rice in rice cooker + coconut milk & chicken broth to a little bit above the appropriate line in the rice cooker to compensate for the added solids in the coconut milk. It's great with nearly any grain, although I have yet to try it with quinoa or barley. I like to dump in extra veggies like peas, mushrooms, broccoli, and top with things like kimchi, radishes, fried eggs, corn, nori, pan fried tofu, shredded chicken, little shrimp... You get the idea. Swap chicken broth for whatever liquid you like, as long as it's a little salty.
posted by Mizu at 1:46 AM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Here's a very short but interesting thread on the Straight Dope message boards about why some recipes call for boiling the coconut milk until it separates, and here's some advice on stack exchange about the same thing, but with frying. From a dairy-free site, some general tips, including using coconut milk instead of dairy cream in recipes, and few more pointers here: How to use coconut milk, from the Food Network.
posted by taz at 2:45 AM on February 21, 2014 [6 favorites]

Use it in your favorite French Toast recipe, instead of regular milk.
posted by Thorzdad at 4:48 AM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

I cook mung beans (green gram) in coconut milk - but add the coconut at the end before serving so it doesnt split.

basically, temper some vegetable oil with cumin and mustard seeds, add ground ginger and garlic and let it sizzle. then add washed mung beans and stir to coat them with the oil. Add enough water to cover, salt, tumeric, red chilli powder and bring to a boil. Once boiled, reduce heat and allow to simmer until the beans are cooked (about 20 mins, less if I let the beans soak before cooking)
Before serving stir in coconut milk. Bring to a boil again, let it simmer for a few mins, and serve rice.

My mum also cooks cassava along the same principles (although i think she boils the cassava in plain water first, then cooks in tempered oil)
posted by darsh at 5:32 AM on February 21, 2014

I started making the Thai red curry recipe on the back of the jar of this red curry paste years ago and it has become one of my staples.

This is also very good, much better than you would expect reading through the recipe:

Kidney Beans in Coconut Milk
1 onion, chopped
1 jalapeno, chopped
1 can coconut milk (use regular, not lite)
1 tbsp + 1 tsp ground cumin
2 tsp ground coriander
2 tsp sugar
salt (1/2 tsp or so)
2 cans kidney beans, drained & rinsed
1 can diced fire roasted tomatoes
cooked rice and steamed kale, for serving
fried egg (optional)

Put onion, jalapeno, and coconut milk in a big skillet and simmer for about 5 minutes until onion is soft. Add spices, kidney beans, and tomatoes. Simmer 20 minutes or so to let the flavors blend.

To serve, put about 1/2 cup cooked brown rice in a bowl, top with steamed kale, and pour the beans over it. Top with a fried egg if desired.
posted by something something at 5:54 AM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Put a can of full fat coconut milk in the refrigerator for a day or so, and don't shake or jostle it at all. When you pull it out and open it, it will have separated: The top layer will be all fat and heavy cream, and the lighter, more watery stuff will be on the bottom.

Scoop out the top layer and use a stand or handheld mixer to whip it up with a splash of vanilla extract or some vanilla bean plus a bit of sugar or maple syrup, and you will have seriously divine (and 100% vegan) whipped cream. It's excellent on pumpkin pie, apple crumble, fresh fruit, and dessert spoons. Use the bottom layer as a replacement for water in coconut rice, smoothies, or curries. I try to keep a can in the fridge because it's good in almost everything!

Favorite vegetable additions to coconut milk: Green beans, carrots, regular potatoes, sweet potatoes, garbanzo beans/chickpeas.
Favorite herbs, spices, and flavors to use with it: Kaffir lime leaves, turmeric, curry powder, red or green curry paste, garam masala, ginger, garlic, lemongrass, star anise, lime juice, cilantro/coriander, brown sugar, a small piece of cinnamon stick for simmering.

SOP in my house: Fry protein until it's almost fully cooked, add vegetables and fry until they're almost fully cooked, turn heat to medium-low, add dry spices and cook for 30-60 seconds to toast, add coconut cream and a splash of vegetable broth or water and soy sauce to deglaze, add coconut water, turn heat to medium-high or high, cook everything together for 2-3 minutes or until sauce has reduced to desired consistency, nom.
posted by divined by radio at 6:02 AM on February 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

Two things, one directly related:

-if you are making frosting, coconut milk (added gradually in place of the liquid and part of the fat) will make your frosting glossier and more coconut-y.

-it is possible that you are just in a coconut mood and have not yet discovered cooking with coconut oil. You can cook with refined coconut oil in general as a replacement for most regular oils and when making pastries (it's great for vegan pie crust). But you can also get "virgin" coconut oil, which has a coconut flavor! I like to blend a little coconut and a little peanut oil when sauteing things, for instance - you can carmelize onions this way and add them to lentils, you can just saute vegetables (or meat, I assume), you can use it as a base for sauces. You can also saute rice (or other grains) in coconut oil and then add broth, as if you were making a risotto but with coconut! You might also enjoy adding toasted coconut flakes (get the good unsweeted dry kind, especially the big flakes) to the resulting dishes.
posted by Frowner at 6:28 AM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

To me, coconut milk means Chicken Adobo

Light coconut milk can be substituted for regular coconut milk. Serve this dish over rice.

8 (5- to 7- ounce) bone-in chicken thighs, trimmed
1/3 cup soy sauce
1 (13 1/2-ounce) can coconut milk
3/4 cup cider vinegar
8 garlic cloves, peeled
4 bay leaves
2 teaspoons pepper
1 scallion, sliced thin


1. Toss chicken with soy sauce in large bowl. Refrigerate for at least 30 minutes and up to 1 hour.

2. Remove chicken from soy sauce, allowing excess to drip back into bowl. Transfer chicken, skin side down, to 12-inch nonstick skillet; set aside soy sauce.

3. Place skillet over medium-high heat and cook until chicken skin is browned, 7 to 10 minutes. While chicken is browning, whisk coconut milk, vinegar, garlic, bay leaves, and pepper into soy sauce.

4. Transfer chicken to plate and discard fat in skillet. Return chicken to skillet skin side down, add coconut milk mixture, and bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 20 minutes. Flip chicken skin side up and continue to cook, uncovered, until chicken registers 175 degrees, about 15 minutes. Transfer chicken to platter and tent loosely with aluminum foil.

5. Remove bay leaves and skim any fat off surface of sauce. Return skillet to medium-high heat and cook until sauce is thickened, 5 to 7 minutes. Pour sauce over chicken, sprinkle with scallion, and serve.
posted by Jazz Hands at 6:53 AM on February 21, 2014 [7 favorites]

Coconut milk - either the canned kind cut with some water or the milk alternative in the carton - makes a fine oatmeal, either the cooked or uncooked kind.

I use it whenever I want to veganify something in a creamy base - mac and cheese, casseroles that traditionally use Cream of Something soup, creamed potatoes/spinach/cauliflower etc.

Except for the potential to break (which I've never managed to do even though I'm pretty good at breaking sauces and emulsions), there's not really anything you can't do with it. It won't curdle, as far as I can tell, so it's not good for a quick cheese, but it's otherwise very resilient.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:12 AM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Stir fry/saute a combination of onions, other vegetables, and protein (meat, tofu, fish) until almost done, then add coconut milk, fire-roasted canned tomatoes and fish sauce. Cover and simmer until done, and serve over rice. I haven't yet found any veggies or proteins that this doesn't work with. Try it with cauliflower and chicken thighs, or tofu and spinach. I make this a few times a week and it is freaking delicious.
posted by Wordwoman at 8:39 AM on February 21, 2014 [3 favorites]

Just today I tried making cream of wheat with coconut milk instead of water. It was soo yummy with brown sugar on top.
posted by Playswithdirt at 12:34 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I use coconut milk as a non-dairy substitute in most recipes where I would normally use milk or cream. In general, full-fat coconut milk = whole milk/cream and lite coconut milk = skim milk. (The cream on top of full-fat coconut milk is similar to heavy cream.) I've used it to make everything from my morning coffee to fettucini alfredo to ice cream. If you can make it with milk, you can probably make it with coconut milk!

What goes with coconut milk? I'm sure you've noticed by now that coconut milk has a relatively mild flavor profile. If you think a food goes with dairy milk or cream, it probably also goes with coconut milk.

So, how can you use it in recipes? It's generally a 1:1 substitute for milk or cream. Full-fat coconut milk has a fairly high fat content, so it will make any dish you add it to richer. As with dairy, the higher the fat content, the less likely it will curdle/break/separate when you heat it up. Stick to the full-fat stuff when putting it over heat and try to avoid boiling it for best results. That means taking the pot off the heat and stirring the coconut milk in at the end of soups and stews, for example. You'll also probably want to add some sort of acid to balance to fat in coconut milk and brighten up the flavors in whatever you're cooking.

I'm a big fan of this quick & easy cream of tomato soup, but you can use coconut milk in just about any soup that calls for cream. I also recently made a variation of this Roasted Winter Vegetable soup with coconut milk (stirring it in at the end) that turned out fantastic.

Thai food is great for learning to cook with coconut milk. There are a lot of stews and curries that use coconut milk for a base. I recently made this Slow Cooker Thai Chicken Soup (with some tweaks) that turned out great. (However, next time I'll make it on the stove top because my slow cooker gets too hot and the coconut milk separated.) Thai peanut chicken is a personal favorite of mine.

Bonus: if you skim the cream (thick, white solid portion) off the top of a settled can of full-fat coconut milk, you can use it to make dairy-free whipped cream!
posted by geeky at 1:19 PM on February 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

I use it when making Thai Peanut Sauce. I use this recipe as a starting point and just leave out or add whatever appeals to me, and whatever's in my kitchen cupboard. The recipe calls for 1/2 cup of coconut milk. I don't like to open up a can and use just a portion of it, and then have to keep it around, so I buy little 5 or 6 oz cans at my local Asian market, and use the entire little can when making peanut sauce. I combine the sauce with steamed short-grain brown rice and whatever veggies I have on hand.
posted by marsha56 at 2:10 PM on February 21, 2014

I've been baking boneless chicken breasts in a coconut (light) milk/thai red curry sauce:

Slice one sweet onion & put in baking dish
Put chicken pieces on top--sprinkle a little pepper, kosher salt and garlic powder
Top with sliced bell pepper (I use one red and one green)
Mix one 14oz can coconut milk (I use light) with a packet of "Taste of Thai" red curry paste (or green or yellow).
Pour mixture over chicken and veggies
Bake covered for 40--50 minutes until chicken is done
Serve with rice, peas and roasted sweet potato
Yum! Next time I make this, I'm also adding chunks of pineapple for sweetness

Sauce is great over the rice. Sweet potato and peas go very well with the rest of the dish.

Very good and EASY
posted by I'm Brian and so's my wife! at 4:49 PM on February 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks for all that. I feel a lot more confident about what to do with coconut milk now. I was afraid to experiment with it and potentially waste it, but it sounds like it actually goes well with just about anything, so maybe I don't need to worry so much. I just found a local market that sells full-fat coconut milk without any gums or stabilizers for 89 cents a can, so I'll definitely be trying out a lot of these suggestions in the near future.
posted by sam_harms at 10:25 PM on February 21, 2014 [2 favorites]

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