Is there a difference between coconut milk and coconut cream? And what about cream of coconut?
Coconut milk is not the thin liquid found inside the coconut itself—that is called coconut water. Coconut milk is a product made by steeping equal parts shredded coconut meat and either warm milk or water. The meat is pressed or mashed to release as much liquid as possible, the mixture is strained, and the result is coconut milk. The same method is used to make coconut cream, but the ratio of coconut meat to liquid is higher, about 4 to 1. (The cream that rises to the top of coconut milk after it sits a while is also referred to as coconut cream.) Finally, cream of coconut—not to be confused with coconut cream - is a sweetened product based on coconut milk that also contains thickeners and emulsifiers. Cream of coconut and coconut cream are not interchangeable in recipes, as the former is heavily sweetened and the latter is not.
To find out firsthand how coconut milk, coconut cream, and cream of coconut stack up, we made coconut milk and cream in the test kitchen and compared them with commercial products. For the first test batch, we made coconut milk with water. (One cup of fresh coconut meat was ground in a food processor with 1 cup of warm water. The mixture steeped for one hour and then was strained.) Next we made a batch with milk, using the same method. The coconut cream was made using the same method, but with a higher ratio of meat to water: 2 cups of fresh coconut meat to 1/2 cup of water. We then did a blind taste test, pitting our homemade products against canned cream of coconut and canned coconut milk.
Both the canned and the homemade coconut milks were very thin, with only a modest amount of coconut flavor (although the coconut milk made with cow’s milk rather than water was superior). The homemade coconut cream, though made with water, was quite good: thicker, creamier, and somewhat more flavorful than the coconut milk. The canned cream of coconut was very sweet and syrupy, really inedible right out of the can, with sugar being the predominant flavor. However, we found that it can be used in baking with good results.