Both canned and refrigerated coconut milk are made from the grated meat and liquid of mature coconuts. However, there are some key differences between the two types of coconut milk that are worth noting.
Canned Coconut Milk
Canned coconut milk is made by combining equal parts coconut meat and water. The coconut meat is grated and soaked in hot water to extract the flavor and oils. The mixture is then strained to remove any solids, resulting in a smooth, creamy liquid. Optional stabilizers and preservatives may be added before canning.
Once canned, coconut milk has a shelf life of 2-5 years due to the canning process killing any bacteria. Canned coconut milk is widely available in most grocery stores and tends to be more affordable than refrigerated options.
Here are some key attributes of canned coconut milk:
- Smooth, creamy texture
- Sweet coconut flavor
- High fat content, around 17-24%
- Contains stabilizers and preservatives
- Long unrefrigerated shelf life – 2-5 years when unopened
- More processed and separated from the coconut meat
- Lower overall nutrition than refrigerated
- Readily available and budget-friendly
Canned coconut milk works well for recipes where you want a smooth texture and intensified coconut flavor. The high fat content makes it a popular choice for curries, soups, desserts, and more. Just be sure to shake the can well before using, as the solids and cream separate during storage.
Refrigerated Coconut Milk
Refrigerated coconut milk is a less processed option than canned. It is simply made by mixing freshly grated coconut meat with water and straining it to remove solids. This coconut milk is then quickly packaged and refrigerated to preserve freshness.
Since it does not go through high-heat canning, refrigerated coconut milk has a shorter shelf life of 10-14 days. It is usually sold in the refrigerator section at health food stores and specialty grocers. Refrigerated coconut milk tends to cost a bit more than canned.
Here are some characteristics of refrigerated coconut milk:
- Natural, smooth texture
- Subtle, light coconut taste
- Lower fat content, around 5-10%
- No stabilizers or preservatives
- Short unrefrigerated shelf life – 10-14 days
- Minimally processed and close to raw coconut
- Higher overall nutrition than canned
- Less accessibility and higher cost than canned
The mild taste and fat content make refrigerated coconut milk suitable for recipes where you don’t want an overpowering coconut flavor. It works well in lighter curries, smoothies, oatmeal, etc. Be sure to check the expiration date and give it a stir before using.
When it comes to nutrition, refrigerated coconut milk is generally a better choice over canned:
|Nutrient||Refrigerated (per cup)||Canned (per cup)|
As you can see, refrigerated coconut milk contains higher levels of important minerals like calcium, iron, and potassium. It offers a more nutritious profile overall.
When it comes to taste and texture, refrigerated and canned coconut milk offer slightly different experiences:
- Refrigerated: Has a mild and slightly sweet natural coconut flavor. The texture is smooth and creamy without being overly thick.
- Canned: Provides bolder coconut taste. It has a thicker, richer texture and mouthfeel.
Canned coconut milk offers a more intensified coconut experience while refrigerated has a fresher, subtler taste. Which one you choose comes down to personal preference and how you want the coconut flavor to come through in a particular recipe.
On average, here is how the prices of refrigerated and canned coconut milk compare:
|Refrigerated (32 oz)||$4.29|
|Canned (13.5 oz)||$2.15|
Refrigerated coconut milk costs about twice as much as canned coconut milk per ounce. This price difference reflects the more perishable nature of refrigerated coconut milk and the shorter shelf life. Canned coconut milk is more budget-friendly for everyday use.
Canned coconut milk is far more widely available than refrigerated:
- Canned: Sold at all major grocery stores, supermarkets, warehouse clubs, etc.
- Refrigerated: Primarily found at health food stores like Whole Foods, Sprouts, etc. Also available at some specialty grocers.
The ubiquitous nature of canned coconut milk makes it the easier option to find. Refrigerated coconut milk takes a bit more effort to source and may not be accessible depending on where you live. However, as the natural and organic food movements grow, refrigerated coconut milk is gaining more mainstream availability.
Storage and Shelf Life
Proper storage is important to get the most out of each type of coconut milk:
|Type||Storage||Unopened Shelf Life||Opened Shelf Life|
|Refrigerated||Refrigerate at 40°F max||10-14 days||7-10 days|
|Canned||Pantry is optimal, can refrigerate||2-5 years||5-7 days|
As you can see, refrigerated coconut milk has a much shorter shelf life overall compared to canned. Be diligent about checking expiration dates on refrigerated coconut milk. Once open, it should be used up within 7-10 days.
On the other hand, canned coconut milk stores for years unopened. This makes it more convenient to keep on hand. Be sure to refrigerate opened cans within 5-7 days.
In the kitchen, canned and refrigerated coconut milk are better suited for different applications:
- Canned: Curries, stews, soups, baked goods, ice cream, whipped cream, etc. Provides rich texture.
- Refrigerated: Smoothies, chia pudding, oatmeal, lighter curries, etc. Offers subtle coconut flavor.
Choose canned coconut milk for dishes where you want a strong coconut presence and thicker consistency. Use refrigerated coconut milk when you need a dairy-free creamer or desire a hint of coconut.
Some potential cons to be aware of for each type of coconut milk include:
- Canned: Higher in additives, bisphenol A (BPA) lining in cans, needs stirring before use, not raw or vegan.
- Refrigerated: Spoils quickly, harder to find, higher price, separates and needs stirring.
Make sure to shake or stir canned and refrigerated coconut milk before using as the solids and creamy part separate. Also, opt for BPA-free cans when possible if using canned coconut milk.
Refrigerated coconut milk is generally seen as the more eco-friendly choice over canned options:
- Refrigerated is packaged in recyclable cardboard versus canned in metal lined with plastic.
- Refrigerated undergoes less processing and manufacturing.
- However, refrigerated coconut milk may use more energy for transportation due to refrigeration.
That said, you can buy canned coconut milk in BPA-free recyclable cartons as a more earth-friendly option. When in doubt, reusing glass jars or cartons helps minimize waste.
Concerns for Vegans
Here are some things for vegans to be aware of with each type of coconut milk:
- Canned: May contain guar gum or other stabilizers that use animal products. Opt for brands clearly labelled “vegan.”
- Refrigerated: More likely to be vegan as there are fewer additives. But always check label.
As with any product, carefully read the ingredients list and research brands to find vegan coconut milk options that align with your diet and ethics.
In summary, while both provide creamy coconut flavor, refrigerated and canned coconut milks differ in:
- Nutrition and fat content
- Taste and texture
- Cost and accessibility
- Storage needs and shelf life
- Best culinary uses
For everyday use, affordable and ubiquitous canned coconut milk is a handy staple. Treat yourself to refrigerated coconut milk for a more nutritious, subtle coconut taste when you can find it. Knowing the distinctions allows you to decide which type of coconut milk is best for your needs.