The Label To Triple Check Before Cooking With Canned Coconut Milk

Say you're in the mood to make Thai green curry for dinner or maybe a spot of coconut chia pudding for dessert. You'll need to buy a can of coconut milk to pull off the recipe, but while you're out buying ingredients at the grocery store, make sure to triple-check the label before putting the can in your cart. No, you're not looking for the expiration date, but for the word "unsweetened."

Here's the thing — coconut milk is usually sold side by side sans of sweetened condensed coconut milk or cream of coconut, which are much sweeter. The cans will be nearly indiscernible, which means you can easily grab the wrong one. While they may seem interchangeable, unsweetened coconut milk contains only the natural sugars from the nut, while the others have added sugar. So if you're not checking labels and accidentally buy the wrong item, you could be serving up a saccharine coconut chickpea curry.

What is the difference between the three?

Other than plain coconut milk being less sugary, there are some other key differences between the three ingredients. Unsweetened coconut milk is a thinner, natural coconut-flavored liquid that's made by blending the flesh of a coconut with water and can sometimes be used as a dairy-free alternative to regular milk in some recipes. It's included in a wide variety of dishes, from savory curries and soups to sweet smoothies and desserts.

In contrast, sweetened condensed coconut milk is a thick, sweet syrup commonly used as a sweetener and flavor enhancer in desserts. It's made by simmering coconut milk and sugar together until it reduces into syrup. You'll typically only see it in desserts, and it is often used as a dairy-free alternative to sweetened condensed milk. Then there is cream of coconut, which is also syrupy but used in both desserts and drinks like piña coladas. It is made by combining coconut cream with sugar, creating a thick and creamy consistency, and it's the thickest option of the three.

Knowing this, it wouldn't make much sense to add the latter two options to a savory meal or the unsweetened version to a dessert or drink sans some additional sugar.