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Ask Dr. Gourmet

What can I use in recipes in place of coconut milk?

My wife and I like Thai curry, but coconut milk is so high in fat and saturated fat. Do you have a replacement suggestion? I've seen soy milk or evaporated milk suggested.

Also, I was wondering if in fact coconut milk's saturated fat (and plant sources of saturated fat) were in fact healthy.

Dr. Gourmet Says...

a fresh coconut, cut in half to show the coconut flesh inside

Coconut milk has gotten a bit of a bad rap because it is high in saturated fat. These types of fat are likely not as much of an issue as those saturated fats found in animal products., however.

That said, I always use light coconut milk in my recipes. It's widely available now and far lower in fat and calories but with all the flavor of regular coconut milk (and more than enough creaminess).

Coconut milk is pressed in much the same way as olive oil. The coconuts are cracked open and the meat is scraped out of the brown husk shells. There is a thin layer of lighter brown skin that must then be removed. The remaining white meat is soaked in water then processed into a pulp which is squeezed and the liquid strained. Sort of like extra virgin olive oil, the first liquid that rises to the top is the coconut milk. This is also known as the "head of the coconut milk". This is the stuff with the high fat and calorie content.

The same process is repeated but using the remains of the previously squeezed meat. The lighter version is known as the "tail of the coconut milk" and is far lower in fat and calories but with much the same flavor. There's not much difference in the final flavor or texture of your dish but a HUGE savings in fat and calories. Here's the breakdown:

Regular Coconut Milk: 111 calories per serving and 12 grams of fat, with 5 grams of that as saturated fat.

Lite Coconut Milk: 45 calories per serving and 4 grams of fat, 3 grams of that saturated fat.

So you can have your Thai curries and eat them too... Just use light coconut milk.

Here are some curry recipes to try:

Indian Shrimp Curry
Thai Coconut Soup with Shrimp
Crunchy Peanut Shrimp
Pumpkin Curry
Massaman Curry
Thai Coconut Shrimp
Curried Chicken

Thanks for writing,

Timothy S. Harlan, MD, FACP, CCMS
Dr. Gourmet