Who knew coconut milk could be so confusing?
It shouldn’t be. At heart, it’s a delicious liquid made from coconuts (duh!) that can effortlessly add an exotically creamy richness to so many meals.
Except that grocers sell about half a dozen different products that go by the same or very similar names. And they aren’t interchangeable.
So let’s start with what coconut milk isn’t.
Coconut water is a hip new drink that is made from the liquid inside coconuts. Drink it, but don’t cook with it.
Coconut milk beverage is a sweetened drink made from coconut milk and sugar. It’s usually sold in boxes alongside the soy milk.
Coconut cream is a very thick, fatty liquid made from steeping shredded coconut in hot water at a 4:1 ratio. It is sold in cans, usually in the international aisle.
Sweetened cream of coconut is coconut cream that has been — are you ready? — sweetened. It’s intended for cocktails. Pina colada anyone?
Coconut milk is the real deal and the one you want for cooking.
Coconut milk is made like coconut cream, but with a 1:1 ratio of coconut to water. The result is a thick, pourable product sold in cans in the international aisle.
In Southeast Asia, Africa and even South America, coconut milk is used in curries, soups (like Thai chicken and coconut), sauces and even sweets, such as rice puddings and some baked goods.
In the U.S., we see it most often in curries, cream pies and puddings.
While it isn’t hard to make your own (simmer shredded coconut in water, then drain), let’s face it — none of us is going to do that.
Canned coconut milk is widely available and inexpensive. But you will need to stir or shake it. The fatty “cream” will rise to the top of the can over time, creating a dense layer that needs to be mixed back into the watery liquid below.
What should you do with it?
• Add half a can to the braising liquid when slow-cooking chicken, or even beef roasts. Be sure to balance the rich flavor with lime juice or vinegar.
• Add ¼ cup to a bowl of hot oatmeal, along with the usual cinnamon and maple syrup. A bit of lemon zest is nice, too.
• Toss cooked pasta with canned crushed tomatoes, garlic, baby spinach and just enough coconut milk to make a sauce.
• Substitute coconut milk for half of the liquid called for in most pudding recipes, especially tapioca, chocolate and rice pudding.
• Sauté mixed vegetables and chicken, then add cooked rice and enough coconut milk to form a sauce. Season with fresh cilantro and lime juice.
• Substitute coconut milk for the liquid and half of the fat in your favorite blueberry muffin recipe.
• Simmer meatballs in a blend of coconut milk, lime juice, hot sauce and chicken broth. Finish with fresh basil, mint or cilantro.
Coconut-Lime Pulled Chicken Tacos
Start to finish: 25 minutes
1 (2-pound) rotisserie chicken
1 cup coconut milk
½ teaspoon cumin
Zest and juice of 1 lime
Splash hot sauce
Salt and ground black pepper
¼ cup fresh cilantro, chopped
8 (6-inch) flour tortillas, warmed
1 small red onion, diced
1 avocado, peeled, pitted and sliced
Remove the meat from the chicken, then use your fingers to pull any larger chunks into bite-sized pieces.
In a medium saucepan over medium heat, combine the chicken, coconut milk, cumin, lime zest and juice, and hot sauce. Simmer until heated through and thick.
Season the chicken with salt and pepper, then remove from the heat. Stir in the cilantro, then divide the mixture between the tortillas.
Top each serving with diced onion and avocado. Serve immediately.
J.M. Hirsch is the national food editor for The Associated Press. He is the author of the recent cookbook High Flavor, Low Labor: Reinventing Weeknight Cooking. He also blogs at jmhirsch.