Blanca asks: “If a recipe asks for coconut milk can I use coconut cream instead?”
If you’re talking about that amazing stuff you use to make those deliciously boozy Piña Coladas that we all love… then the answer is no. Absolutely not. You’ll end up with something way too sweet.
Let’s start at the beginning. Coconut milk, coconut cream, coconut water and cream of coconut are used in tons of recipes in Latin American and Asian cuisines. Sometimes they can be used interchangeably, but you need to carefully read the label. (We’ll assume you’re not making fresh coconut milk from whole coconuts, right?)
Speaking of fresh coconuts, I know a woman from the Philippines who can open a coconut like she’s opening a peanut. But that’s not you and me, Blanca, like most people, we have to rely on cans or cartons, so here we go:
Coconut milk is a little bit thicker and creamier than cow’s milk. It’s made by pouring equal parts of boiling hot water over the freshly grated meat of a brown coconut. The mixture is pressed to release as much liquid as possible, then cooled and strained. Coconut milk is gently fruity and rich because of the high oil content. Most of the fat is saturated fat. It’s has a very subtle sweetness, although canned varieties may have added sugar and preservatives. Coconut milk is often used in savory dishes in place of tomato sauce and as a broth in sauces and soups. Always shake the can before using.
Coconut cream has a paste-like density because it contains less water. It’s made the same way as coconut milk, but the ratio of grated coconut meat to water is higher, about four parts coconut to one part water. After it is strained, refrigerated and allowed to set, the smooth coconut cream is skimmed off the top of the coconut milk. There is barely any sweetness with coconut cream, but the coconut flavor is marvelous. Think of it this way: Coconut cream is to coconut milk what condensed milk is to regular milk… thicker and richer. It’s also sold in wax-like blocks.
Coconut water comes from the liquid inside green coconuts. It’s an excellent thirst quencher. A great source of potassium, coconut water has become the darling of the sports world. It’s packed with naturally occurring minerals and essential electrolytes. It’s not sweet, but is amazingly delicious. Coconut water, straight from a real coconut is tremendously popular in the tropics as an on-the-go drink. Here’s a video from an open market in Grenada:
Finally, cream of coconut is coconut milk that contains sweeteners, emulsifiers and thickeners. It’s used in sweet fruity drinks and desserts. I wouldn’t use this when making savory dishes, but you definitely CAN use it to make a fun cocktail to serve with those savory dishes!
So you see, there is a big difference between coconut milk and coconut cream (as well as coconut water and cream of coconut!). Thanks for asking, Blanca!
If you love coconut as much as I do, check out these recipes: