How to Know When to Use Cream of Coconut, Coconut Milk, or Coconut Cream in Your Cooking

These coconut products are similar, but they can't always be swapped for one another.

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Cooking with coconut products is a great way to add flavor and texture to a variety of sweet and savory dishes. But, if you're not familiar with the products, it can be confusing—how is cream of coconut different from coconut milk? And where does cream of coconut fit in? Which is best for baking or beverages—and can you swap one for the other? Learn how to use these coconut products, which are great substitutes for dairy and are found in dishes from cuisines across the world. They're all widely available at both specialty and regional grocery stores.

Meet Our Expert

Elliot Drucker, senior product developer at Momofuku Goods, makers of Asian-inspired pantry essentials

Related: The Difference Between Dutch-Process Cocoa and Natural Cocoa—Plus When to Use Each in Your Baking

What Is Cream of Coconut?

Cream of coconut is a sweetened coconut product that is typically sold in a can.

What It's Made From: It’s made by pulverizing coconut milk and water, then combining it with a sweetener.

Texture: It typically contains more coconut meat than coconut cream or coconut milk, so it has a thicker, creamier texture.

Uses: Cream of coconut is a key ingredient in tropical cocktails like a piña colada, where it adds flavor, thickness, and sweetness. In fact, it is often sold in the cocktail mixers section of the grocery store. It can also be used in baked goods like coconut cake, but be mindful to reduce the amount of sweetener used elsewhere in the recipe. It’s not ideal for savory culinary applications because of the added sweetness.

Key Difference: The most important characteristic of coconut cream is the added sweetener, which you don’t see in either coconut cream or coconut milk.

What Is Coconut Cream?

Though its name is similar to cream of coconut, coconut cream is actually closer to coconut milk, but with a higher fat content, says Elliot Drucker, senior product developer at Momofuku Goods. Coconut cream is generally sold in cans.

What It's Made From: Coconut cream and coconut milk are made from the same core ingredients—coconut meat and water—but coconut cream has a higher content of actual coconut and a lower content of water.

Texture: Coconut cream typically has a fat content of 19-22 percent, which results in a thicker, creamier texture, says Drucker.

Uses: Coconut cream is ideal for baked goods, savory dishes, or cocktails with a thicker texture. It can also be whipped like heavy cream to make a dairy-free topping.

Key Difference: Coconut cream is thicker than coconut milk and not sweetened like coconut cream.

What is Coconut Milk?

Coconut milk is a traditional ingredient in many different cuisines. It's especially popular in dishes from Southeast Asia, East Africa, West Africa, the Caribbean, and South Asia. There are two main types of coconut milk—canned coconut milk used for cooking and coconut milk in a carton that’s best for adding to drinks like coffee and tea. They're sold in different areas of the grocery store, reflecting their differing uses.

What It's Made From: It's very similar to coconut cream in that it’s made of shredded coconut and water.

Texture: Coconut milk is quite creamy but thinner than coconut cream and has an opaque, white color. 

Uses: It can be used in a range of savory dishes or baked goods. Coconut is not a dairy product, so it’s a great substitute for someone looking for a dairy-free alternative, and it’s a handy ingredient to swap into dishes that typically call for milk or heavy cream. Coconut milk does have a coconut flavor, so you will notice that whether you use it in savory dishes, baked goods, or coffee.

Key Difference: Coconut milk is not as thick as coconut cream and not sweetened like cream of coconut.

Canned Coconut Milk

Canned coconut milk is generally sold in the canned goods aisle of the store and is most frequently used for cooking. Often, when you open a can of coconut milk, you’ll see that it has separated in the can, leaving a thick layer of coconut cream at the top of the can with a layer of coconut water at the bottom. "This layer of creamy coconut that rises to the top and solidifies is pure coconut cream and can be used as such," says Drucker. Alternatively, you can shake or stir the coconut cream back into the milk to give the product a more even texture before using. Coconut milk in a can is your best bet for culinary applications like curries or soups.

Coconut Milk for Coffee and Tea

The coconut milk available in the alternative milk section of the supermarket is sold in cartons and is similar to other dairy-free options used in beverages, like oat milk or soy milk. It contains considerably more water than canned coconut milk, so it’s thinner and can easily be stirred into coffee or tea in place of traditional dairy milk.

Differences Between Cream of Coconut, Coconut Cream, and Coconut Milk

“Coconut milk and coconut cream are more similar than they are different,” says Drucker. The key differences are the fat content and the texture. Coconut cream has a significantly higher total fat content and a creamier texture. Though the two items are very similar and can be swapped in a pinch, you should be mindful when selecting one for a recipe. Coconut cream is great for added body or thickness in broths, curries, or soups, while coconut milk will add more water and thin it out, says Drucker.

Cream of coconut is a different matter. Unlike coconut cream and coconut milk, it has a sweetener already added to it.

How to Use Cream of Coconut, Coconut Cream, and Coconut Milk

Coconut cream and canned coconut milk are fantastic in both savory dishes and baked goods, and the desired texture of your dish will determine which option to use. If you’re making a luscious coconut cream pie, you’ll want to use coconut milk from a can, and the same goes for coconut-curry shrimp and couscous. If you’re making a curry or sauce that you want to be extra thick and creamy, opt for coconut cream instead.

As it is already sweetened, cream of coconut is best reserved for making blended, slushy cocktails, and should not be substituted for the other coconut products.

Read the original article on Martha Stewart.