How we tested
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.
We tasted seven nationally available brands (five regular and two light) in coconut pudding, coconut rice, Thai-Style Chicken Soup, and green chicken curry. Among the five regular brands, tasters gravitated to those with more solid cream at the top of the can (most cans recommend shaking before opening to redistribute the solids). These brands also had a much stronger coconut flavor.
In the soup and curry, tasters preferred the brand with the exceptionally low sugar content (less than 1 gram per 1/3 cup). By comparison, brands with more than twice as much sugar tasted "saccharine." In the sweet recipes, tasters gave a velvety alternative top votes for its "fruity" and "complex" flavor. In these recipes, the extra sugar was an advantage.
The light coconut milks we tasted were not nearly as creamy—a serious flaw in desserts but less so in soup. Of the two light brands tasted, we found one had a richer flavor.