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The Best Coconut Milk
We were shocked by the dramatic differences among canned coconut milks.
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What You Need To Know
If you crack open a coconut, the thin liquid that pours out is coconut water. It has gained recent popularity as a sports drink, but we don’t have much use for it in the test kitchen. We also tend to stay away from cream of coconut, the extra-thick and sweetened stuff, unless we’re making a tropical cocktail. Instead, the test kitchen’s go-to coconut liquid is coconut milk. It’s made by shredding fresh coconut meat and pressing it to extract liquid, sometimes adding a small amount of water to help the process. Coconut milk is a key ingredient in many puddings and pies and a staple in Southeast Asian soups, sauces, curries, and stir-fries.
When we last reviewed coconut milk, we preferred regular, full-fat versions to light alternatives and named Chaokoh, an ultracreamy Thai import, our winner. To find out if any new contenders could best our old favorite, we rounded up seven products, priced from $0.99 to $3.29 for a roughly 14-ounce can. We sampled them three times in blind tastings: plain (to get a sense of their differences), and then in coconut rice pudding and Thai-style chicken soup.
Before we even got to tasting, though, we were surprised by the dramatic differences among the products when we opened the cans. Although we think of it as a single ingredient, coconut milk is technically an emulsion of coconut oil, coconut protein, and water. Because coconut oil solidifies into coconut cream at room temperature, canned coconut milk generally separates into two distinct layers: liquid water at the bottom and solid white cream at the top. The cream in some cans was as heavy and dense as Crisco, while in others it had a looser consistency. The colors ranged from gray to snowy white. The liquid also varied. In some cans, it was opaque and smooth in consistency. In others, the liquid was cloudy, with little specks of cream. And, to our surprise, the ratio of cream to water differed in each product. When we separated the two components, some had a roughly 50/50 balance, while others contained almost no liquid.
Why so different? It turns out that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate the term “coconut milk,” and each manufacturer is able to set its own standards on how concentrated and/or fatty its product might be. (There are also no standards for how ingredients appear on the label. Two products listed “coconut extract” instead of “coconut milk” on their labels, but after talking to experts we concluded that these were one and the same.) Some factors (such as the amount of water added) are easy for manufacturers to adjust, but Dr. Nattapol Tangsuphoon, a professor of food science at Mahidol University in Thail...
Everything We Tested
Our new winner impressed us throughout testing with a texture that was “velvety” and “luxurious” but not too thick. It boasted “balanced,” “clean” flavor that tasted strongly of coconut but didn’t overwhelm the other ingredients in the pudding or soup. It’s also sold in cartons, but we don’t recommend buying them because they are irregularly sized (16.9 fluid ounces). This product and one other cited “coconut extract” as an ingredient on their labels, but we concluded this was simply a different term for the coconut milk listed on the other products.
With high levels of fat and several stabilizers, it’s no surprise that this sample was very “thick,” “rich,” and “well emulsified.” It was also described as “very sweet,” especially in the rice pudding—no surprise, given that it has one of the highest sugar levels in our lineup.
UPDATE: May 2017: Per updated information from the manufacturer, the product actually contains 13.3 grams of fat and less than 1 gram of sugar per 1/3-cup serving. It has not been reformulated.
The “nutty” and “sweet” notes in this coconut milk earned it top marks in our plain tasting and made for a “very coconutty” pudding. Although it was a bit thinner than our favorite, our panel approved of soup made with it and thought the texture of the pudding sample was “just right.”
Our tasters still liked the “smooth,” “satiny” appearance and “even consistency” of our old winner. It scored especially high in our evaluations of Thai-style chicken soup, which had “the right amount of body” and was “rich without being heavy.” It lost a few points because its pudding had some slight off-flavors and lacked the intense coconut flavor of our new favorites.
Recommended with reservations
This coconut milk’s flavor was less intense than those of our favorites. In evaluations of texture, tasters approved of its coconut rice pudding, but soup made with this product was too “liquid-y” and “thin” for most of our panel. It was also quick to separate.
This coconut milk had an intensely “nutty” flavor that resulted in a “very coconut-forward” rice pudding. However, some tasters thought it also seemed “artificial” with a “sunscreen-y” aroma.
UPDATE: May 2017: Per updated information from the manufacturer, the product actually contains 0 grams of sugar per 1/3-cup serving. It has not been reformulated.
Tasters asked, “Where’s the coconut?” Not only was its flavor “mild” and “weak,” but this product also had textural flaws: Served plain, it was “watery” and “greasy.” Soup made with this coconut milk separated quickly, creating a “thin” soup with little pools of oil on the surface.
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The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.
Kate is a deputy editor for ATK Reviews. She's a culinary school graduate and former line cook and cheesemonger.