One of the problems with being or becoming lactose intolerant, lactose sensitive or vegan is finding replacements for dairy in the recipes we know and love. One of the most versatile and common substitutes is coconut, particularly coconut milk and coconut oil, due to its ability to resemble the texture and creaminess of milk better than most other replacements in most situations. Its fat content also makes it a great baking ingredient in place of butter. If you only had coconut milk and coconut oil on hand, you can make just about anything calling for dairy about 99% of the time, excluding cheese. The good news for those who hate coconut is that coconut oil when heated looses its coconut flavor, making it awesome to cook with for those who hate the flavor of coconut.
Here’s what’s so great about coconut water, coconut oil and coconut milk and cooking with them for your dairy-free and vegan needs. Also included are recipes for making your own low-cost coconut water and coconut milk for the frugal or from-scratch enthusiasts.
#1 – You Can Drink It
If you’re just looking to replace milk as a drink, look no further than coconut water (not to be confused with coconut milk). You can buy this at most grocery stores or make it yourself pretty easily and cheaply. While it will have a different nutritional profile than milk, it will have a heck of a lot less sugar – only 1 gram as opposed to milk’s 11-12 grams – and no fat. Here’s just a peek at what else coconut water has going for it:
One cup (240 ml) contains 46 calories, as well as:
- Carbs: 9 grams
- Fiber: 3 grams
- Protein: 2 grams
- Vitamin C: 10% of the RDI
- Magnesium: 15% of the RDI
- Manganese: 17% of the RDI
- Potassium: 17% of the RDI
- Sodium: 11% of the RDI
- Calcium: 6% of the RDI
No one will argue that milk and coconut water taste anything alike but if you’ve been drinking milk as a beverage, you’ll probably be better served turning to coconut water to quench your thirst.
#2 – It Makes a Great Cooking Oil Without Ruining the Flavor
When I gave up most dairy, finding a non-butter cooking oil for eggs was a challenge. I don’t cook with “vegetable” oil or canola. Olive oil and sesame oil make horrible tasting scrambled eggs, at least to me, though they flavor other dishes quite well. Coconut oil quickly became my go to oil for dishes when added flavor from an oil would be problematic, as in the case with eggs. Coconut oil heats up to be flavorless in your cooking so even coconut-haters can enjoy using this dairy substitute.
Some controversy exists over coconut oil and whether it’s healthy or bad for you. It does have saturated fat if you worry about that sort of thing. Like many oils though, how it’s processed will impact its healthiness. Most cooking oils, no matter how organic, are not all that healthy to begin with and should be limited anyway. Food is chemistry and the way most oils get heated and processed before being bottled for sale can change their chemical profile, making any of them worse for us to consume.
Then there’s the issue with the over-consumption of omega-6 fats vs. omega-3 fats in modern life. Western populations are eating large amounts of processed seed and vegetable oils. Interestingly, the technology to process these oils didn’t exist until about 100 years ago which makes them a fairly new food group. Some of these oils are loaded with omega-6s. In one hundred years, soybean oil consumption in the US went from zero to 24 pounds (11 kgs) per person per year. Soybean oil is currently the biggest source of omega-6 fatty acids in the US because it is really cheap and found in all sorts of processed foods. It’s also the main ingredient in “vegetable” oil. Meanwhile, 90% or more of all soybeans in the US are GMO. The amount of omega-6 fatty acids found in average body fat stores has increased by more than 200% (3-fold) in the past 50 years alone.
Coconut oil by comparison is low in omega-6. This makes it and olive oil the best for cooking in a world where our omega-6 consumption has gotten out of control, which researchers point to contributing to a host of health issues. Whether researchers are right or barking up the wrong tree, I have no idea.
Personally, I only buy the most virgin, cold-pressed and unrefined coconut oil I can find. That’s as close as I can get to the natural oil without cracking a coconut and pressing it myself. I’m an ardent supporter of a whole foods diet and limiting how our foods get processed before reaching us. Chemistry is a huge part of this so the closer to the original form of the food, the better in all cases. With the hormones and antibiotics given to dairy cows and the poor quality of their feed, I’ll take virgin, unheated coconut oil every time over butter. Same for the overly processed vegetable oils high in omega-6s that line grocery shelves. Even many olive oils get overly processed and heated before they reach us. When it comes to whether to use coconut oil, you be the final judge.
#3 – It’s a Great Replacement for Butter or Shortening
In most recipes calling for butter or shortening, coconut oil makes a great substitute. In many recipes, particularly baked goods and desserts, you need a fat. This is why coconut oil features so much in vegan or dairy-free dessert or baking recipes. You can substitute it one-to-one for butter. When I make my own dark chocolate bars, I use coconut oil and it’s fabulous. And again, cooking with it doesn’t impart a coconut flavor to the final product, making it very useful as a dairy replacement for those who hate the taste of coconut.
Sometimes though I will use coconut milk rather than oil to replace butter, such as with no bake chocolate cookies or gluten-free pancakes, muffins, etc. To me it doesn’t add a coconut taste but your taste buds may differ. In general, this is because the amounts of coconut milk being used are small in relation to the other flavorful ingredients.
#4 – It’s Easy to Use In Place of Milk
While you can straight up drink coconut water, it’s not great for replacing dairy products in recipes. Coconut milk, however, is an amazingly versatile replacement. It goes great in coffee and if diluted slightly or not at all, works great too as a replacement for milk or buttermilk in recipes. Unless you’re adding copious amounts of coconut milk, the flavor shouldn’t really affect the final product. I’ve never noticed even a coconut residue in the final taste of my cooking, particularly when it comes to my gluten-free and dairy-free pancakes, muffins, etc. – but again, your taste buds may differ.
Coconut milk makes a great milk replacement in smoothies and shakes. Here the coconut flavor is more robust depending on how much you add so for those coconut haters out there, maybe a soy or nut milk would be a better choice for these drinks.
Nutrition booster. A great thing about coconut milk is its nutritional profile. Coconut milk is a high-calorie food and while about 93% of its calories come from fat, including saturated fats, it may actually BENEFIT weight loss, body composition and metabolism. Its saturated fat is known as medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs) which researchers have linked with weight loss. MCTs stimulate energy through a process called thermogenesis, or heat production. Some studies indicate that MCTs work to reduce body weight and waist size. They may also balance out unstable gut microbiota. A lack of this stability may play a role in developing obesity. Findings of a 2018 study suggest that MCTs increase insulin sensitivity, and many researchers believe that this sensitivity promotes weight loss. Insulin is an essential hormone that breaks down glucose and controls blood sugar levels.
When it comes to heart health, the studies are promising. An eight-week study in 60 men found that coconut milk porridge lowered “bad” LDL cholesterol more than soy milk porridge. Coconut milk porridge also raised “good” HDL cholesterol by 18%, compared to only 3% for soy (1). Coconut milk may also reduce inflammation, reduce stomach ulcer size and fight viruses and bacteria.
- Calories: 552
- Fat: 57 grams
- Protein: 5 grams
- Carbs: 13 grams
- Fiber: 5 grams
- Vitamin C: 11% of the RDI
- Folate: 10% of the RDI
- Iron: 22% of the RDI
- Magnesium: 22% of the RDI
- Potassium: 18% of the RDI
- Copper: 32% of the RDI
- Manganese: 110% of the RDI
- Selenium: 21% of the RDI
As you can see, coconut milk contains a number of amazing qualities which make it a great milk replacement.
#5 – It’s An Awesome Cream
In the kitchen, cream is used as a topping for sweet or savory dishes, or as an ingredient in sauces, soups, puddings, custards and even cakes. Light cream and half-and-half are commonly added to coffee or other beverages. In most vegan and dairy-free recipes for cream substitutes, coconut milk crops up again and again. This is because coconut milk, of all the other replacements, most resembles cream in its texture and creaminess. Use coconut milk to replace cream and you won’t be at all disappointed. Here though the coconut flavor haters might need to pick and choose. Baking with coconut milk will generally yield a non-coconut taste, even with puddings and custards, but if you’re topping your food with it or making a sauce, you probably won’t like it because the coconut flavor will come through.
#6 – You Can Replace Condensed Milk With It
Need a condensed milk substitute? You can make a dairy-free version using just coconut milk and maple syrup. No maple syrup? Honey works too.
#7 – It Makes a Fantastic Ice Cream
Coconut milk features in most dairy-free and vegan ice cream recipes. Again, this is because of its creaminess and mouthfeel. Check out these 22 Vegan Ice Cream Recipes using coconut milk.
#8 – You Can Even Make Yogurt With It
Want to enjoy some of the health benefits of yogurt? You can make your own with just coconut milk and probiotics. Of course, you can buy coconut yogurt too. Either way, you can use it in any recipe calling for yogurt or to enjoy as its own delicious food.
What to Watch Out for When Buying Coconut Products
Not all quality of coconut products are created equal. Always, always read the labels and ingredients. Manufacturers try to stick all sorts of additives and chemicals into coconut waters, milks, creams, etc. like they do with most anything else, even other dairy replacers like nut and soy milks.
I’m lucky that my grocer stocks canned unsweetened organic coconut milk for $1.99 with only organic coconut, purified water, and organic guar gum listed as ingredients. That’s pretty great considering what crazy stuff gets put into most other coconut milks or other coconut products – whether low-fat or full. In general, be on the watch for added sugars in all forms, as well as natural flavors (which aren’t the least natural), preservatives, emulsifiers, and just plain strange, unpronounceable chemicals. I’m resigned to guar gum in my canned coconut milk since it’s difficult to find it without unless I’m making it myself. Speaking of…
How To Make Your Own Coconut Milk or Coconut Water
Since switching to a pretty much dairy-free diet over the past year and a half, I’ve gone through a ton of coconut milk. Even at $1.99 a can, the costs add up fast. Being frugal and also dubious of ingredients in my food and how trustworthy companies are in their reporting, I enjoy making my own coconut milk and water. They’re pretty straightforward and easy too – plus way cheaper than buying them pre-made and with the peace of mind of knowing just what went into my food. Here are the recipes I use for coconut water and coconut milk.
Coconut Water Recipe
1 cup unsweetened coconut flakes (you can use fresh, dried, desiccated, full fat or low)
2 cups of water
Optional: pinch of salt
Directions: Mix coconut flakes with the water and optional salt, refrigerate for an hour, then strain using a sieve or cheesecloth, pressing to release as much liquid as possible. The liquid is your new coconut water. Reserve the pulp to use in baked goods or in oatmeal, smoothies, etc.
Coconut Milk Recipe
1 cup unsweetened coconut flakes (you can use fresh, dried, desiccated, full fat or low)
2 cups of water
Optional: pinch of salt
Optional: 1 date or 1 Tbsp (15 ml) maple syrup for sweetness
Optional: 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
Optional: 2 Tbsp (10 g) cocoa or cacao powder for chocolate “milk” or 1/4 cup fresh berries for berry “milk”
Directions: Combine coconut flakes with water and optional ingredients in a high-speed blender like the Ninja and blend for 2 minutes or until the mixture seems well combined. Do a taste test. If it’s too thick, add more water until you reach the consistency you like. If it’s too coarse for you or you can’t get it finer from blending, strain it once using a nut bag, cheesecloth or sieve. Reserve the pulp to use in baked goods or in oatmeal, smoothies, etc.
A Versatile, Almost One-Stop Shop for Your Dairy-Free & Vegan Needs
While I haven’t seen cheese made from coconut products, coconut features prominently in most other dairy substitutes. As an ingredient, coconut milk or coconut oil works amazingly well as a stand-in for the fat, texture and creaminess of most milk products. Importantly, coconut doesn’t overpower the final product with a coconut taste unless you’re going crazy with the amount of coconut. This is especially the selling point for coconut oil, as it heats without imparting any coconut flavor, making it truly versatile for even staunch coconut haters.
Adjusting to a new way of eating usually means juggling unfamiliar new cooking ingredients. Simplify by keeping coconut milk and coconut oil on hand if you’re looking for one or two items to stock in your pantry rather than a host of nut milks and soy products to meet your dairy-free or vegan needs (though these are perfectly wonderful in their own right). Of course, your taste buds may vary but give coconut milk and coconut oil a try. You’ll be amazed by their culinary power.
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