How to Cook With Coconut Milk

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How to Cook With Coconut Milk


As much as I worship the seasonal and the fresh when it comes to ingredients, there are a handful of canned products that are sacred in my kitchen. Coconut milk is one of them.

The creamy yet dairy-free foundation of so many dishes, it adds its subtly sweet flavor and richness to countless curries and stews, soups and pilafs, and makes for a stunning hot chocolate with an inimitable perfume.



Given how much I rely on it now (and increasingly so, as more people in my life give up dairy), there was a time not so long ago when coconut milk was strictly a do-it-yourself affair. Supermarkets stocked cloying cream of coconut for piña coladas, but not the unsweetened stuff that’s thankfully ubiquitous today.

If I wanted to make, say, Julie Sahni’s malai murgh (chicken in creamed coconut sauce) from her cookbook, “Classic Indian Cooking,” I had to start with a whole, mature coconut.

After piercing the “eyes” — the three indentations in a coconut shell — to drain the liquid (which was how you got your coconut water in those dark days), I baked the orb for half an hour until its hard brown shell cracked. Then I carved out the meat, grated it in a food processor, soaked the gratings in boiling water for another half an hour, puréed the mixture, let it cool, strained and squeezed it in cheesecloth and, several hours later, I had the equivalent of two cans of coconut milk.

Was that homemade coconut milk superior to the canned stuff? I honestly can’t remember. But I know I wouldn’t be using it nearly so often if I didn’t have a couple of cans in my pantry next to all the tinned fish (another sacred staple).

These recipes are a celebration of the joys and ease of canned coconut milk, each highlighting its mellow character in a distinct way.

In this black bean soup, coconut milk’s gentleness tempers the earthiness of the beans and cumin, and contrasts with the fiery smack of sliced jalapeño. Coconut milk also leaves the broth elegantly silky and very satisfying.

Mixed into cornbread in place of the usual dairy milk, coconut milk gives the loaf a nutty fragrance and a particularly tender, cakelike crumb. And you can adjust its sweetness level to taste. Adding all of the brown sugar called for edges this toward dessert, but you can use less to keep this firmly on the savory side. I do call for butter, but coconut oil works just as well and keeps this dairy free.

Finally, given my fondness for both coconut milk and sheet-pan meals, it’s no surprise that I found a way to combine them. I coat cubes of sweet potato and plump, pink shrimp in ginger-spiked coconut milk, then pop everything in the oven (the potatoes first, and the shrimp later) until the potatoes are velvety soft and the shrimp perfectly succulent. Coconut milk helps the potatoes caramelize at their edges and imbues the shrimp, making them even sweeter.

Coconut milk may not be the star of any of these dishes, but it turns each one of them into the best possible version of itself.



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