Fresh coconut milk is always best but many of us outside of Asia, unfortunately, do not have this luxury. As with any ingredient, get the best that you can afford, the same goes for coconut milk. Get the one that has the least added ingredients – just coconut milk and water is the best.
If canned coconut milk is unavailable, unsweetened desiccated coconut will also work. Soak it in hot water for 20 minutes, then squeeze out the milk and strain, just like you would with fresh coconut. Sweetened coconut milk won’t really work, unless you were using it for dessert.
I have an Indian grocer about 10-15 minutes away, and he stocks frozen fresh coconut. That’s the next best thing to fresh. I just let the coconut thaw, add some warm water, and extract the milk as I used to do, growing up with fresh coconut in Singapore.
When using coconut milk, never cook on a rolling boil. Always cook on low heat, on a gentle boil or simmer, otherwise your milk will curdle/split. This is especially true with fresh coconut milk. Many canned coconut milk have added stabilisers, so theoretically, they are sturdier and will stand up to a higher cooking temperature. However, even these “stabilised” coconut milk can be temperamental and split.
And if you are using organic, it may not have stabilisers.
If your coconut milk is starting to curdle, you’ll see a clear liquid separating from the white fat, much like curds and whey. If this happens, get a teaspoon to a tablespoon of cornflour (cornstarch), mix with a little water to form a thin paste, then gradually add this to your coconut mix curry/sauce, stirring all the time. This ought to bind it together. The amount of cornflour you use will depend on the amount of coconut milk you are cooking with.
We extract coconut milk in 2 steps:
- the first extract is thick and used right at the end, when the food is done cooking.
- the second and subsequent extracts are lighter and stand up to vigorous cooking better.
On this site, we love coconut milk, and have many recipes using it:
A quick description of how to extract coconut milk from fresh coconut, and how best to use it.
- 2 cups freshly grated coconut
- 750ml (3 cups) water
- Add 1 cup of water to the coconut, squeezing and mixing the water and the coconut.
- Using a strainer, strain this thick, first extract and set aside.
- Next add the other 2 cups, do the same, and strain this thinner coconut milk.