Coconut milk is essential for Thai curry, and often used in Indian curries too. But you see both canned and cartons, so is coconut milk in the can the same as the carton?
Carton coconut milk is not the same as canned. The biggest difference between canned & carton coconut milk is that carton coconut milk has more fillers & is watered down quite a bit more, despite both starting with coconut & water as the main ingredients.
This makes carton coconut milk far more watery, lower in fat, and less flavorful than canned coconut milk. But that is also why canned coconut milk is so much more expensive per ounce.
But there’s a lot more to know about coconut milk and whether the refrigerated stuff in the carton should make it into your next curry.
So let’s keep going!
What exactly is coconut milk and how is it made?
Coconut milk is made by blending grated coconut with hot water, and then pressing and straining it.
The cream produced can be diluted to create regular or lite coconut milk or kept concentrated as coconut cream. It’s distinct from coconut water, the juice inside the coconut. Canned coconut milk is made by puréeing the meat with water and straining it, commonly used in Thai dishes.
On the other hand, carton coconut milk, found in the refrigerator section, is a non-dairy substitute often used in smoothies or as coffee creamer. It’s typically more affordable and may contain additional ingredients like thickeners and sweeteners.
Canned vs. carton coconut milk: When to use each
For many recipes, particularly Thai curry, canned coconut milk is preferred over carton coconut milk due to its richer flavor and thicker consistency.
Carton coconut milk, typically found in the dairy section, is a beverage often used like regular milk. It’s suitable for drinking, adding to cereal, or general cooking and baking. However, it’s not an ideal substitute for canned coconut milk in dishes requiring a creamy coconut flavor.
Canned and carton coconut milk are distinct products. The carton version often contains additives like sweeteners or stabilizers that can alter a dish’s taste. For authentic Thai dishes like Tom Kha Kai, always opt for canned coconut milk. For smoothies, carton coconut milk is usually adequate.
Typical uses for canned coconut milk
Canned coconut milk is a versatile ingredient, often used in both savory and sweet dishes.
In Asian cuisines, it’s a staple for creamy curries, soups like the Thai Tom Kha Gai, and stews. It adds depth and richness to dishes, balancing out spicy flavors.
For those who are dairy-free, coconut milk serves as an excellent cream substitute in sauces, gravies, and even mashed potatoes. In desserts, it’s used in tropical treats like panna cotta, rice pudding, and the Filipino dessert “ginataan.” Bakers also appreciate coconut milk for vegan cakes and pastries.
Beyond cooking, it’s a primary ingredient in beverages like the classic piña colada or a dairy-free smoothie. Additionally, its thick and creamy texture is perfect for making non-dairy ice creams and whipped cream. With its unique flavor and creamy consistency, canned coconut milk elevates a wide range of dishes.
Typical uses for carton coconut milk
Carton coconut milk, often lighter than its canned counterpart, is a favorite in daily culinary applications.
It’s a popular non-dairy alternative for morning routines, poured over cereals or blended into coffee and smoothies. Its mild flavor and fluid consistency make it ideal for oatmeal or granola.
In cooking, carton coconut milk is a go-to for light soups or broths, adding a hint of tropical flavor without the heaviness.
It’s also used in baking, providing moisture to cakes, muffins, and pancakes, especially in vegan recipes. For those watching their calorie intake, this version of coconut milk is often preferred in dressings, sauces, or marinades. Beyond food, it’s a base for many dairy-free beverages, from lattes to refreshing summer coolers.
Given its versatility, carton coconut milk has become a staple in many kitchens, catering to both flavor and dietary preferences.
How are canned coconut milk and carton coconut milk made?
Both carton coconut milk and canned coconut milk start with coconut and purified water. However, carton coconut milk is typically diluted much more requiring larger quantities of thickeners to improve the texture.
But of course, there are many brands of both and the ingredients are not exactly the same from brand to brand. Below, I take a look at Whole Foods private label 365 brand and the ingredients.
Canned Coconut Milk Ingredients:
ORGANIC COCONUT, PURIFIED WATER, ORGANIC GUAR GUM (Source)
Carton Coconut Milk Ingredients:
ORGANIC COCONUT MILK (FILTERED WATER, ORGANIC COCONUT CREAM), CALCIUM CARBONATE, NATURAL FLAVOR, ORGANIC LOCUST BEAN GUM, GELLAN GUM, SEA SALT, VITAMIN A, PALMITATE, ERGOCALCIFEROL (VITAMIN D2), CYANOCOBALAMIN (VITAMIN B12) (Source)
These are from the same brand and they are both unsweetened.
As you can see, the stuff from the carton has added flavoring, thickeners and stabilizing ingredients. True, the canned coconut also lists guar gum, which is a thickener just like locust bean and gellan gum. But they are likely used in much lower quantities in the canned stuff.
Plus the carton of coconut milk has much higher water content. That is what makes it pour out of the carton AND why it’s so much cheaper per ounce compared to the can.
The easiest way to figure that out is by looking at the fat content.
That’s a whopping 800% more fat in the can than the carton. And the reason for that is all the added water in the carton that’s not in the can.
But mostly, the carton of coconut milk has a fairly neutral flavor. So that delicious coconut taste so needed in Thai curries and soups would be barely noticeable if you used the carton instead of the can.
Nutritional differences between canned coconut milk and carton coconut milk
Coconut milk is packed with nutrients. According to a recent study published by the Journal of Chemical and Pharmaceutical Research and a second study by the Natural Medicine Journal, coconut milk has a variety of health benefits from:
- Helping with healthy weight management
- Assisting with overall Heart health
- Supports the immune system
And specifically, that first study went on to find that coconut milk could “prevent oxidative damage and reduce the risk of degenerative diseases.”
Fat & sugar content
Canned coconut milk packs about 45g of fat per cup, with minimal sugars since it’s unsweetened. In contrast, carton coconut milk, also unsweetened, contains around 4-5g of fat per cup and typically less than 1g of sugar.
Canned coconut milk typically contains around 400-450 calories per cup, largely from its fat content. On the other hand, unsweetened carton coconut milk has significantly fewer calories, often ranging from 40-50 calories per cup. Always check individual product labels for the most accurate calorie information.
Coconut milk, whether canned or in cartons, may be processed in facilities handling nuts, leading to potential cross-contamination. While coconut itself isn’t a tree nut, those with nut allergies should check labels for allergen warnings. Unsweetened varieties typically have minimal sugar, but fat content varies: canned has around 45g/cup, carton about 4-5g/cup.
— MyRecipes (@My_Recipes) February 21, 2019
Drinking: Is carton coconut milk better than canned as a milk substitute?
You can use canned coconut milk as a beverage. However, it will likely be separated in the can with a solid layer of coconut cream and a watery liquid below it. So stirring or mixing is recommended.
But it will definitely be thicker than carton coconut milk with a stronger flavor too. That being said, most people use carton coconut milk to drink rather than canned. Canned is generally preferred for cooking.
While canned coconut milk can be a great addition to smoothies, there are lots of other ways to enjoy coconut milk, too.
- You can add a little to your coffee or tea to add a bit of sweetness.
- Enjoy a bowl of mixed berries with a small amount of coconut milk for a sweet dairy-free dessert.
- Mix cinnamon and vanilla in a small amount of warmed coconut milk for a cozy winter drink. Make a delicious mocktail with coconut milk, seltzer, natural sweetener, and other flavorful mix-ins.
- For a summer treat, pour coconut milk into a popsicle tray with your favorite fruit or other add-ins, pop it into the freezer, and enjoy some refreshing coconut popsicles.
Coconut milk is also rich in potassium and high in iron, and makes a great conditioner for your hair! Consumed in moderation, coconut milk is a delicious treat that can help you feel full longer, and have more energy.
Cooking: Do people typically use canned coconut milk instead of cartons?
Canned coconut milk, with its rich consistency, is the go-to for many traditional dishes, especially in Southeast Asian cuisines.
Its dense texture and pronounced coconut flavor make it indispensable for recipes like Thai curries or Indonesian rendang. The high-fat content in canned coconut milk provides a depth of flavor and luxurious mouthfeel that’s hard to replicate with other ingredients.
On the contrary, carton coconut milk is lighter and more diluted, often used as a dairy substitute in beverages or light cooking. However, when a recipe calls for the authentic richness of coconut, chefs and home cooks alike typically reach for the canned variety.
Its undiluted essence ensures that dishes have the genuine coconut flavor and creaminess they require.
Do coconut milk cans contain BPA?
Bisphenol A, commonly known as BPA, is a chemical often used in the production of plastics and resins.
Many cans used for food products, including coconut milk, were traditionally lined with a BPA resin. This lining prevents the metal from corroding, which could compromise the food’s safety and taste. However, the potential for BPA to leach into the food, especially acidic or fatty foods like coconut milk, has raised health concerns.
Recognizing these concerns, many manufacturers have transitioned to BPA-free cans. These cans use alternative materials that don’t pose the same health risks. As consumers become more health-conscious and informed, the demand for BPA-free packaging has grown. Consequently, many brands of coconut milk now proudly label their products as “BPA-free.”
However, it’s essential to note that not all cans are BPA-free.
If avoiding BPA is a priority, it’s crucial to read product labels carefully or reach out to manufacturers directly for clarification. In summary, while many coconut milk brands have shifted away from BPA-lined cans, it’s always a good practice for consumers to check and ensure they’re making a choice aligned with their health preferences.
Are there safety concerns with coconut milk carton packaging?
Coconut milk cartons, like many beverage containers, are designed to keep the contents fresh and free from external contaminants. However, there are some safety and environmental concerns associated with carton packaging that consumers should be aware of.
One of the primary concerns with carton packaging is its recyclability.
Cartons are typically made from a combination of paper, plastic, and sometimes aluminum. This multi-layered design ensures the product inside remains fresh and uncontaminated.
However, it also poses challenges during recycling.
Due to their production methods, many recycling facilities find it difficult to separate the different materials effectively. As a result, many municipalities do not include cartons in their recycling programs.
This means that, unless consumers have access to specialized recycling facilities, these cartons often end up in landfills.
From a health perspective, it’s essential to store cartons properly. If a carton is punctured or damaged, it can become a breeding ground for bacteria. Always check cartons for any signs of damage before purchase and consume the contents before the expiration date.
Additionally, while carton packaging reduces the risk of chemical leaching compared to some plastics, consumers should still be aware of the materials used in the carton’s inner lining. Some might have concerns about potential chemical migration into the coconut milk, especially if the carton is exposed to high temperatures.
Can You Make Homemade Coconut Milk?
Making homemade coconut milk is a straightforward process that offers a fresh, additive-free alternative to store-bought versions. All you need is a mature coconut and water.
Start by cracking open the coconut and pouring out the coconut water; you can save this for other uses. Then, scrape out the coconut meat using a spoon or knife. For one coconut, you’ll typically get about 1 to 1.5 cups of coconut meat.
Next, blend the coconut meat with 2 to 3 cups of hot water (not boiling) until it forms a smooth paste.
The amount of water can be adjusted depending on the desired thickness. Once blended, strain the mixture through a cheesecloth or a fine sieve into a bowl, squeezing out as much liquid as possible. The remaining coconut pulp can be dried out and used as desiccated coconut or in baked goods.
The resulting liquid is your homemade coconut milk. It’s creamier and more flavorful than most commercial varieties, without any preservatives or additives. Store it in the refrigerator and use within 3-4 days for the best flavor and consistency. Before using, give it a good shake or stir as natural separation may occur.
For those who regularly use coconut milk in their cooking, this homemade version can be a game-changer. Not only is it cost-effective, but it also allows for customization in terms of consistency and flavor. Plus, the satisfaction of making a staple ingredient from scratch is unmatched.
How to choose the best coconut milk for your needs
Selecting the best coconut milk largely depends on your specific needs, be it culinary, dietary, or environmental. Here’s a guide to help you make an informed choice:
- Purpose: For cooking, especially dishes like curries or soups, go for full-fat canned coconut milk. It offers a rich, creamy texture and robust coconut flavor. If you’re looking for a dairy milk substitute for cereals, smoothies, or coffee, carton coconut milk, typically found in the dairy section, is your best bet.
- Ingredients: Always check the ingredient list. The fewer the ingredients, the purer the product. Ideally, coconut milk should contain coconut and water, and maybe some guar gum as a stabilizer. Avoid brands with added sugars, especially if you’re watching your sugar intake.
- BPA-Free Cans: If you’re health-conscious, opt for brands that use BPA-free cans. BPA is a chemical that can leach into food or beverages from containers that are made with it.
- Environmental Concerns: While cans are widely recycled, many municipalities do not recycle cartons due to their production methods, which combine paper, plastic, and sometimes aluminum. If environmental impact is a concern, you might lean towards brands that use recyclable packaging or consider making coconut milk at home.
- Dietary Restrictions: If you’re following a specific diet, like keto or paleo, you’d want to choose unsweetened, full-fat coconut milk. For vegans, ensure there are no dairy-derived ingredients.
- Origin and Certification: Some prefer coconut milk sourced from specific regions, believing in flavor or quality differences. Certifications like organic or fair trade can also influence choices.
Remember, the best coconut milk for you aligns with your culinary needs, health preferences, and environmental values.
Coconut water, coconut milk, and coconut cream, oh my!
We have learned a LOT today about the different types of delicious coconut products. In review:
- Coconut water is the juice from the coconut.
- Coconut milk is made with the sweet white meat of the coconut, blended with water and strained. It is delicious in Indian and Thai recipes.
- Coconut cream is creamier and thicker than coconut milk. The taste is very similar to coconut milk and provides a nice thick consistency to recipes.
But mostly, we explored the question is coconut milk in the can the same as the carton?
The answer to that question is no. They are fairly different. Coconut milk in the carton is nothing like coconut milk from the can. It’s much more watered down and lacking that strong coconut flavor that is essential for curries and other Thai food recipes.
Carton coconut milk is fine for drinking, coffee creamer, and cereal but does not make a great substitute for canned coconut milk in cooking or baking.
Frequently Asked Questions
Is canned coconut milk unsweetened?
Almost all brands of coconut milk in a can will be unsweetened, meaning there will be no added sugar or sweetener. However, coconut is already naturally sweet and somewhat high in sugar.
So, most of the time yes. But it’s always a good idea to check the ingredients. Not all canned coconut milk is unsweetened.
Though it is naturally sweet, it does come in a sweetened condensed version and cream of coconut. Both sweetened condensed coconut milk and cream of coconut have added sugar.
Almost any recipe that uses canned coconut milk is referring to the unsweetened variety. So when you shop for canned coconut milk, look for the “unsweetened” label, just to be sure or check the ingredients as some of the imported ones don’t say on the front.
Can I use carton coconut milk in curry?
Avoid carton coconut milk for curry; it results in a watery, less flavorful dish.
Canned coconut milk provides the desired consistency and rich flavor. The carton version is diluted, lacking the robust coconut taste of canned. If your curry, primarily made with canned milk, is too thick, you can add a bit from the carton to adjust the texture.
If you must use carton coconut milk for curry, choose unsweetened and avoid vanilla-flavored varieties. If using only carton milk, reduce the quantity to prevent a watery outcome and adjust other ingredients like curry paste and fish sauce to compensate for the milder coconut flavor.
If you love curry, another very common question is what’s the difference between Indian and Thai curry?
In truth, they are actually VERY different although they do share a few ingredients. I break it all down and compare the two cuisines in a recent article.
What really surprised me was how much healthier one is than the other. Just click that link to read it on my site.
— Selina (@witharmsakimbo) March 15, 2015
How do you store leftover canned coconut milk?
Store opened coconut milk in an air-tight container in the fridge for 7 to 10 days.
Unopened cans can be kept in the pantry. If you don’t use the entire can, refrigerate or freeze the leftovers. While freezing extends its shelf life, it may alter the texture and taste.
If stored in the can, cover with foil or plastic wrap and use within a few days. In the fridge, keep coconut milk away from strong-smelling foods to prevent flavor absorption. For longer storage, freeze it for up to 3 months in containers or ice cube trays.
Thawed coconut milk may separate; blend to restore its consistency. Avoid adding frozen coconut milk directly to stovetop dishes like curry. Note that coconut milk can last beyond its expiration date, whether frozen or refrigerated.
How do you tell if canned coconut milk has gone bad?
To tell if coconut milk has gone bad, give it a smell. If it doesn’t look bad or smell bad, give it a taste. Don’t swallow it if it doesn’t taste good. If the coconut milk looks, smells, and tastes good, it’s fine to drink or cook with.
Throw out any coconut milk that looks or smells bad and always throw out bulging or rusted cans, no matter what the expiration date.
There’s no need to risk making yourself sick, no matter how much you love curry.
What can I substitute for canned coconut milk?
Nothing can truly replace the flavor and consistency of canned coconut milk, but if you don’t have any on hand, or you have a coconut allergy, there are some substitutes available.
- Coconut powder: Coconut powder has a long shelf life and you can just mix it with water to get that coconut flavor and some of the same consistency.
- Coconut water: Coconut water will give you the coconut flavor, but none of the consistency as canned coconut milk. You can add some heavy cream to thicken it up a bit.
- Heavy cream: Heavy cream won’t give you that coconut flavor, but it will give you the same consistency as coconut milk. If you are not allergic to coconut, you can add some coconut water for flavor.
- Equal parts cream cheese and skim milk: Like heavy cream, you will get the consistency of coconut milk, but not the flavor.
- Plain Coconut Yogurt: Yogurt has a thick, creamy consistency. And while any plain (unflavored and unsweetened) yogurt will work, a coconut-based one will give you some of that coconut flavor.
Coconut milk is a great substitute for folks with nut allergies or dairy sensitivities. But what about if you are allergic to coconut or just don’t like the taste? If you are allergic to coconut, have a sensitivity to coconut milk, or just don’t like it, fear not!
While nothing can truly replace the flavor and consistency of canned coconut milk, there are some excellent substitutes.
Above I mentioned the difference between Indian curry and Thai curry.
But of course, other Asian countries use coconut milk too and have a lot of different flavors. So if you’ve ever been curious about the differences between Vietnamese, Chinese, and Thai food, check out my recent article.
I break them all down and compare the ingredients, flavors, and which one is the healthiest. I was pretty surprised when I saw which one was the most unhealthy.
Just click that link to read it on my site.
Canned coconut milk vs. coconut cream; what’s the difference?
Coconut cream is creamier and thicker than coconut milk. In canned coconut milk, the coconut cream is the part that rises to the top of the can. But coconut cream can also be found as a separate product sold next to coconut milk. It is made of the same ingredients – coconut and water, but just with less water.
When cooking with coconut milk, it is a good idea to shake the can a bit before adding it to your recipe. Shaking the can will allow the coconut cream to mix with the coconut milk.
Coconut milk and coconut cream taste very similar, so your usage really depends on the consistency you want in your dish. Coconut cream is excellent in curry or Coconut Chocolate Mousse.
Just be aware that sometimes coconut cream comes in sweetened or sweetened condensed versions. So if you plan on using it in a curry, you’ll want the unsweetened coconut cream.
Photo credits that require attribution:
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