To many, coconut milk is considered a cornerstone flavor of Thai cuisine. However, It can be surprisingly difficult to track down one of high quality, and is far too easy to buy one that doesn’t quite do the job. Thankfully, our friends at America’s Test Kitchen did a taste test of coconut milks that are more widely available and pick their favorites. Jack Bishop gave our Managing Producer Sally Swift the low-down on what makes a good coconut milk and shared their recommendations. See the full list below the interview. And no matter what coconut milk you like best, use it for this wonderful recipe for Thai Chicken Soup.
Sally Swift: We have spent this hour talking about Thai food and got me thinking about an ingredient we use a lot in cooking Thai: coconut milk. Have you guys ever evaluated it?
Jack Bishop: We've actually tested seven different brands. I bet you didn't know there were seven brands of coconut milk.
SS: I had no idea.
JB: And that's just the full fat canned coconut milk. We think that the full fat brands are better than the low fat for the obvious reason that fat makes things delicious.
SS: It really does. Can you tell us how coconut milk made?
JB: It's kind of confusing, and because of that a lot of people sometimes end up buying the wrong thing. The liquid that comes out of the center of the coconut is coconut water, the popular sports drink. You don't really cook with that. To make coconut milk, they take shredded unsweetened coconut, mix it with water and basically strain out the water. That liquid is now called coconut milk and that is the thing that we cook with. It is unsweetened, so it’s different than the thing in our beverages; that would be cream of coconut, which is extra thick and has sugar in it. You certainly don't want to be using cream of coconut in a savory dish; you want to get unsweetened coconut milk.
SS: I have noticed that there are amazing differences between brands and the way they look. You can open them and some have liquid on the top, some of them are gray, some of them you can see the fat on the top. Did you have that experience?
JB: Yeah, they were all over the place. As you say, some of them were gray, which isn't terribly appealing. They should have the fat separated out on the top. We actually measured the amount of fat in each can versus the liquid. Some of them were 50/50, some of them were very close to almost all liquid, and some of them were almost all fat – it ranged quite considerably. We found an expert at a university in Thailand who said it's the variety and the age of the coconuts that probably explains that, as well as how much coconut they're putting into how much water. Obviously if they add a lot of coconut to a small amount of water you're going get a much higher fat, more viscous coconut milk as opposed to if they're using a lot of water and not very much coconut.
SS: It’s interesting that it's allowed to be so erratic. It's not regulated?
JB: There are no regulations in the U.S. about this. Of the seven brands that we tested – mostly from Thailand or Vietnam – I would say that four of them were similar and recommended, but several of them felt like they were going to make either a broken or slightly greasy soup. For instance, we made Thai coconut soup with chicken in it as one of the recipes and found that it did impact the quality of the finished dish depending on the brand of coconut milk you were using.
SS: What was the winner?
JB: The winner was a brand from Thailand called Aroy-D. It was high in fat and also high in sugars. These are the natural sugars from the coconut, which is an indication that they were using a fair amount of coconut and a modest amount of water.
SS: On the other end, what was the big loser?
JB: There was one brand that we really did not like because it was watery and separated. It was called A Taste of Thai Coconut Milk. We felt like it didn't have any coconut flavor and in the various tests was underwhelming.
SS: Is there a runner-up to the Aroy-D if we can't get that one?
JB: Our runner-up is a brand called Roland. This one is from Vietnam and another brand that we liked quite a lot.
SS: How did Goya do? I know you can find that almost everywhere.
JB: Goya was in third place. Goya actually comes from the Dominican Republic; I think it was the only one on the lineup that didn't come from Asia.
TASTE TEST: COCONUT MILK
Product selections and notes below provided by Cook’s Illustrated/America’s Test Kitchen
Winner: Aroy-D Coconut Milk
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.
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.
RECOMMENDED WITH RESERVATIONS
Thai Kitchen Coconut Milk
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.
KA-ME Coconut Milk
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.
A Taste of Thai Coconut Milk
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.
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