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Coconut Milk

Published May 2017
Update: May 2017
After the story went to print, we noticed changes in the nutrition information listed on cans of coconut milk manufactured by Roland and KA-ME. Representatives from both companies told us the labels were updated per the latest information from their suppliers, but that the products have not been reformulated.

How we tested

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.

Methodology

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.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*