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We were shocked by the dramatic differences among canned coconut milks.
If you crack open a coconut, the thin liquid that pours out is coconut water. It has gained recent popularity as a sports drink, but we don’t have much use for it in the test kitchen. We also tend to stay away from cream of coconut, the extra-thick and sweetened stuff, unless we’re making a tropical cocktail. Instead, the test kitchen’s go-to coconut liquid is coconut milk. It’s made by shredding fresh coconut meat and pressing it to extract liquid, sometimes adding a small amount of water to help the process. Coconut milk is a key ingredient in many puddings and pies and a staple in Southeast Asian soups, sauces, curries, and stir-fries.
When we last reviewed coconut milk, we preferred regular, full-fat versions to light alternatives and named Chaokoh, an ultracreamy Thai import, our winner. To find out if any new contenders could best our old favorite, we rounded up seven products, priced from $0.99 to $3.29 for a roughly 14-ounce can. We sampled them three times in blind tastings: plain (to get a sense of their differences), and then in coconut rice pudding and Thai-style chicken soup.
Before we even got to tasting, though, we were surprised by the dramatic differences among the products when we opened the cans. Although we think of it as a single ingredient, coconut milk is technically an emulsion of coconut oil, coconut protein, and water. Because coconut oil solidifies into coconut cream at room temperature, canned coconut milk generally separates into two distinct layers: liquid water at the bottom and solid white cream at the top. The cream in some cans was as heavy and dense as Crisco, while in others it had a looser consistency. The colors ranged from gray to snowy white. The liquid also varied. In some cans, it was opaque and smooth in consistency. In others, the liquid was cloudy, with little specks of cream. And, to our surprise, the ratio of cream to water differed in each product. When we separated the two components, some had a roughly 50/50 balance, while others contained almost no liquid.
Why so different? It turns out that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate the term “coconut milk,” and each manufacturer is able to set its own standards on how concentrated and/or fatty its product might be. (There are also no standards for how ingredients appear on the label. Two products listed “coconut extract” instead of “coconut milk” on their labels, but after talking to experts we concluded that these were one and the same.) Some factors (such as the amount of water added) are easy for manufacturers to adjust, but Dr. Nattapol Tangsuphoon, a professor of food science at Mahidol University in Thailand, told us that some factors, such as the variety and age of the coconuts, are harder to control. Younger coconuts contain less fat, resulting in a leaner coconut milk. Temperature abuse during shipping and storage is also a “major reason for inconsistent appearance,” according to Dr. Tangsuphoon, because it can cause crystallization and break the emulsion of oil and water.
Not surprisingly, texture proved important in our tastings. For the most part, the rice puddings all came out acceptably thick and creamy. But when we tasted the coconut milks in Thai chicken soup, we saw big differences. Our least favorite samples were thin and watery or separated quickly and made soups that were thin and dotted with greasy pools of oil. Our tasters much preferred samples that were creamy, full-bodied, and didn’t separate too quickly. As for flavor, products lost points if the coconut flavor was too mild or had an “artificial,” “sunscreen-y” aroma and taste. Our favorites had fresh, vibrant coconut flavor and a smooth, creamy texture.
Most companies were unwilling to disclose information on coconut variety or harvest and manufacturing methods, and the packaging offered few clues. Every coconut milk we tasted had the same main ingredients: coconut and water. The inclusion—or exclusion—of stabilizers or emulsifiers didn’t track with our results. We generally preferred products with more fat per serving, but that didn’t track perfectly either. Sweetness was a better indicator. Our top three scorers have some of the largest amounts of naturally occurring sugar per serving, between 1.8 and 2.7 grams per ⅓-cup serving. The only other product with a similar sugar content was downgraded for egregious textural issues.
Ultimately, six coconut milks had the full, fresh coconut flavor; natural sweetness; and rich, thick consistency required to earn our full recommendation. Our new winner, Aroy-D Coconut Milk ($0.99 for a 14-ounce can), won top marks for a velvety consistency that was creamy but not too thick. Made with just coconut and water, this Thai import was “clean,” “aromatic,” and “balanced.” Best of all, it was the least expensive product in our lineup.
We selected seven varieties of full-fat canned coconut milk. Panels of 21 tasters sampled each plain (stirred gently before portioning), in coconut rice pudding, and in Thai-style chicken soup. We evaluated each product on its flavor, consistency, and overall appeal. Results of the pudding and soup tastings were averaged, and products appear in order of preference. Prices were paid in Boston-area grocery stores. Nutritional information was obtained from product packaging and, where necessary, converted to a standard 1/3-cup serving size.
Our new winner impressed us throughout testing with a texture that was “velvety” and “luxurious” but not too thick. It boasted “balanced,” “clean” flavor that tasted strongly of coconut but didn’t overwhelm the other ingredients in the pudding or soup. It’s also sold in cartons, but we don’t recommend buying them because they are irregularly sized (16.9 fluid ounces). This product and one other cited “coconut extract” as an ingredient on their labels, but we concluded this was simply a different term for the coconut milk listed on the other products.
With high levels of fat and several stabilizers, it’s no surprise that this sample was very “thick,” “rich,” and “well emulsified.” It was also described as “very sweet,” especially in the rice pudding—no surprise, given that it has one of the highest sugar levels in our lineup.
UPDATE: May 2017: Per updated information from the manufacturer, the product actually contains 13.3 grams of fat and less than 1 gram of sugar per 1/3-cup serving. It has not been reformulated.
The “nutty” and “sweet” notes in this coconut milk earned it top marks in our plain tasting and made for a “very coconutty” pudding. Although it was a bit thinner than our favorite, our panel approved of soup made with it and thought the texture of the pudding sample was “just right.”
Our tasters still liked the “smooth,” “satiny” appearance and “even consistency” of our old winner. It scored especially high in our evaluations of Thai-style chicken soup, which had “the right amount of body” and was “rich without being heavy.” It lost a few points because its pudding had some slight off-flavors and lacked the intense coconut flavor of our new favorites.
This coconut milk’s flavor was less intense than those of our favorites. In evaluations of texture, tasters approved of its coconut rice pudding, but soup made with this product was too “liquid-y” and “thin” for most of our panel. It was also quick to separate.
This coconut milk had an intensely “nutty” flavor that resulted in a “very coconut-forward” rice pudding. However, some tasters thought it also seemed “artificial” with a “sunscreen-y” aroma.
UPDATE: May 2017: Per updated information from the manufacturer, the product actually contains 0 grams of sugar per 1/3-cup serving. It has not been reformulated.
Tasters asked, “Where’s the coconut?” Not only was its flavor “mild” and “weak,” but this product also had textural flaws: Served plain, it was “watery” and “greasy.” Soup made with this coconut milk separated quickly, creating a “thin” soup with little pools of oil on the surface.