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Coconut milk is a key ingredient in much of my dairy-free cooking.  If you have a dairy allergy, you don’t have to be deprived of the rich, creaminess of dairy foods. Coconut milk makes a great substitute in your sweet AND savory cooking because it has more fat than nut and soy milks. This means you get a richer, silkier texture in your dishes. I understand if you are worried about all your food suddenly tasting like coconut, so I put together a list of tips and recipes here to show you how to use coconut milk, perfect for if you have never used it before or if you want to expand ideas for how to swap it into your traditional recipes.

Whole coconut and pieces of coconut on white background, top view

There are 3 types of coconut milk:

  • The thinner “drinking milk” that is found with all the other non-dairy nut and soy milks usually in the cereal aisle
  • Canned milk found in the Asian foods aisle, usually used for cooking
  • Canned “coconut cream” which is the thickest part of the coconut milk without the thinner water

ALL of the recipes below use canned coconut milk.

Coconut milk is a superior replacement for regular milk in your cooking as it’s a nutrient-dense source of fat. By now, we’ve all learned that we have nothing to fear from fat. Fat is an important fuel for our cells, it helps reduce inflammation, balances blood sugar, keeps our skin glowing and our hair and nails healthy, and nourishes the brain. Regular milk contains more fat than a soy or nut milk, so replacing it with those leaves our dishes lacking.

Perfect your dairy-free cooking

Savory Recipes

One of the most popular uses for coconut milk is in soups and stews, where it adds a lovely creaminess and a subtle coconut flavor. The fattiness of coconut milk works particularly well with spices and acid, which is why it’s often included in traditional Thai and Indian dishes.

Using coconut milk in other savory dishes can take some finesse though so the flavor doesn’t take over the whole dish.  I am working on a Dairy-Free Cooking Course right now just to show you all the ways you can do this in your everyday cooking.  The first tip is to put your canned coconut in the fridge overnight. This ensures the thick cream rises to the top for when you only need a tablespoon or two.

Here are some mouthwatering ways to add this nutrient-rich milk into your savory cooking to add creaminess and a satiating flavor:

Bowl of thai chicken coconut soup, view from overhead on wood table

SOUPS: Add a couple tablespoons of the thick coconut cream from the can to your soups instead of heavy cream. My recipe for Red Lentil and Coconut Soup uses coconut milk as a main ingredient to add a richness that just doesn’t happen with broth alone, and the red lentils fall apart to create a creamy texture. These flavors pair well together.

ALFREDO SAUCE: Spinach and Mushroom Alfredo with Bacon from The Castaway Kitchen – this recipe uses coconut milk to create a rich, creamy sauce, but then adds cauliflower and bacon to help mask any coconut flavor. Layering flavors like this is a great technique in dairy-free cooking.

CURRY:  This Yellow Chicken Curry from Pinch of Yum is AMAZING. She makes the yellow curry paste separately so you can make it from scratch and have it around any time you want. Coconut milk is a natural ingredient in curries.

THAI COCONUT SOUP : This soup recipe from Nom Nom Paleo, known as Tom Kha Gai combines ginger, lemongrass, and lime leaves to create an intense flavor which the coconut milk helps to soothe.

pan with red wine sausage sauce sitting next to an open can of coconut milk

Tomato and Spicy Fennel Pasta Sauce from Joanne Weir, made dairy free

MEAT SAUCE: Replace the heavy cream in a penne or meat sauce with part coconut cream and part chicken stock. The pan above is the Tomato and Spicy Fennel Pasta Sauce from Joanne Weir, a popular Chef in San Francisco. The recipe calls for 3/4 cups of heavy cream.  I replaced that with 1/2 cup thick coconut cream from the can and part chicken stock. It was FABULOUS!!!

GRAVY: Here is a recipe you might not expect to turn out so well with coconut milk, Pot Pie Gravy. I came up with this recipe when I was working on a gluten and dairy-free gravy and found that simmering coconut milk with bones gave me the most incredibly rich and creamy texture. Learn how to make it in my Gluten-Free Online Course.  Tastes just like the inside of a chicken pot pie.

How to Substitute for Milk in Baking and Sweet Recipes

Coconut milk is perfect for making dairy-free desserts. Its creaminess is just right for puddings and cheesecakes.  Here are some of my favorite sweet recipes using canned coconut milk.

My Chocolate Pudding Recipe – this recipe uses a blend of coconut milk and any nut milk you prefer

Dairy-Free and Gluten-Free Pumpkin Pie  – Another recipe where I use part coconut milk and part other milks, which helps to blend the flavors so no one stands out too much over the pumpkin spices.

Nom Nom Paleo’s Pot de Creme – this is an incredible chocolate dream, with such a wonderful texture just like regular cream.

Nom Nom Paleo’s Matcha Pudding – Michelle Tam of Nom Nom Paleo creates yet another amazing dessert. If you like matcha tea, this is a must-try.

Smoothies like this Pineapple Cucumber from Minimalist Baker – coconut milk is perfect in a smoothie, especially when there is some citrus like the pineapple and lime to cut the taste of the fat down.

What to do with Leftover Coconut Milk

So what do you do with the milk leftover in the can if you didn’t use it all? First, transfer the milk into a glass jar instead of leaving it in the can. It will stay fresher longer and avoid any chemicals from leaching out of the can into the milk.  And then try using one of these recipes:

  • Replace some of the water in your next batch of steamed rice
  • Use it in a smoothie
  • Steam it for your coffee
  • Make a Turmeric Golden Latte
  • Make a Pina Colada
  • Marinate chicken for Grilled Satay Skewers

Let me know if you have any questions about brands to use, or how to use coconut milk in your own recipes.

Enjoy your dairy-free cooking!!



  • Nicole says:

    Awesome tips! I haven’t used coconut milk too much but want to try it out with your suggestions.

  • LaRena Fry says:

    Great ideas for leftover coconut milk.

  • May says:

    Love this! I’ve been experimenting with vegan cooking and love coconut milk! Most recently, I’ve made a chocolate frosting with coconut cream and chocolate chips and it turned out amazing. I will definitely try some of your recommendations, thanks for sharing!

  • Aeris says:

    I have never used coconut milk because I was worried about leftover milk. Thank you so much for this information.

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