Despite living in Thailand for over a decade, like most people residing outside the tropics, when I need coconut milk, I reach for a tetra sealed package on a shelf at the grocery store. Local folk have been telling me for years that this is inexcusable.They tell me the real deal – coconut milk made from scratch – is far superior in taste and quality (ie no added thickening agents, sugar, solvents, etc), not to mention quick and easy to make. Since I am, at my core, an avid home cook, I suppose it was only a matter of time before I gave it a try.
Turns out, the local folk are right.
In Thailand, a fresh coconut vendor is easy to find in nearly every market, and some of them are accompanied by a special coconut shredding machine. Using this device, and for a nominal price, the demolition happens and the coconut is bagged lickety-split. If you do not have a coconut vendor with such a machine nearby, though, no worries. Coconut milk can easily be made using desiccated or unsweetened shredded coconut from your natural foods grocer.
THE DIFFERENCE IN COOKING WITH FRESH VS PACKAGED COCONUT MILK
One note on cooking with fresh coconut milk: unlike the packaged variety which will likely be riddled with thickening and emulsifying (and other nefarious) agents, fresh coconut milk will separate when used in a curry or stored for awhile in the fridge. In Thailand, people are accustomed to this, and it is fully expected that properly made curries will split; Thai people know that’s how real coconut milk behaves. It’s fine that way, really. What you give up in appearance is made up for in unadulterated coconut flavor and peace of mind.
A NOTE ON TERMS: THICK, THIN AND COCONUT CREAM
So, what’s the difference among the various types of coconut liquid called for in recipes?
Coconut Cream is the thick layer of scrumptious, fatty cream that, when chilling in the fridge, floats to the top of the storage container. If you are purchasing canned coconut milk, the cream is the 1/4-1/2 inch or so of gunk floating on the top of the can.
Thick Coconut Milk is the first pressing of coconut milk from the pulp of a fresh coconut.
Thin Coconut Milk is the second pressing of coconut milk from the pulp of a fresh coconut, or the only pressing from store-bought desiccated or shredded unsweetened coconut you may purchase at a store. If you want to make thick coconut milk and your only option is to purchase store-bought desiccated or shredded unsweetened coconut, I suggest you double the ratio of coconut to water, which should help a bit, though it will not be exactly right.
Coconut Water is the clear liquid found inside a fresh coconut. I know … you knew that already. Apologies for the overkill, but a discussion on coconut liquid doesn’t seem complete without including the water.
Thick coconut milk and coconut cream are, of course, essential to Thai curries. Actually, though, it is my growing fondness for dairy-free matcha lattes which propelled me to finally declare “Game On” for trying home-made coconut milk myself. And, I am happy to report that fresh coconut milk works deliciously here as a dairy alternative.
Whatever is nudging you to consider making fresh coconut milk, I hope you take the time to try it. In my opinion, it’s a game-changer.
I have included slightly alternative instructions for making coconut milk depending on whether you are using fresh or store-bought coconut, as the starting temperature of the water will vary slightly. I does not need to be very hot if using fresh coconut.
Also, while most often these days people use a blender to mix the coconut milk and water, even this kitchen gear it is not necessary. As such, I also include alternative instructions depending on whether you want to use the blender method or the traditional "kneading" method.
If using freshly shredded coconut, this recipe will produce "thick" coconut milk. If you conduct the recipe all over again with those same coconut shreds, you will produce "thin" coconut milk.
If using store bought unsweetened coconut shreds or desiccated coconut, you will produce "thin" coconut milk with this recipe.
- 2 cups desiccated or shredded unsweetened coconut fresh or store bought
- 2.5 cups water
Method 1 - (old-school Thai): Place coconut in a large bowl.
If using fresh coconut, heat water to warm - you should be able to comfortably put your hands in the water. Pour warm water over it.
If using store-bought desiccated or unsweetened shredded coconut - heat water to very hot but not boiling. Pour water over coconut. Let water drop to a warm temperature in which you can comfortably place your hands in the water.
Using your clean hands, knead the coconut, almost like it is dough. Grab handfuls of coconut and squeeze until the liquid is mostly gone and you are left with clumps of coconut in your hand. Put this back in the bowl and repeat. Do this for about 5 minutes.
Method 2 - for (the modern approach): Place coconut and water (hot or warm depending on the type of coconut you are using as per above instruction) and blend for 15 seconds or so. Let the mixture sit for a few minutes, before moving on to the next step.
Place cheese cloth, or a nut bag (I have never owned one of these but they sound interesting) inside a bowl large enough to hold everything, with the sides of the cloth or bag draped over the edges of the bowl. Alternatively, a fine mesh sieve works just as well. Pour the mixture of hot water and coconut in the bowl or sieve and squeeze or press the fresh coconut milk through.
You're good to go! Use the coconut milk immediately or store in a sealed container in the fridge up to 3-4 days max. Coconut products are highly perishable.
It also freezes, so you can freeze the milk in large or ice cube sized portions, depending on it's future purpose, for a long, long time.