Back in the day, milk used to be simple.
It arrived on the doorstep, it came from a cow, and it fortified the teeth and bones of growing kids all over the world. But fast forward to 2020 and milk has taken on new forms. Milk has multiplied and now it comes from almonds, oats and coconuts. Vegan forums fiercely debate the merits of each of these, and the world of milk has gotten complicated!
To make matters worse, coconut milk itself takes on a variety of forms. But whether it’s canned or cartoned, splashed in coffee or used in constructing a curry, coconut milk is on the menu. You may be wondering how long coconut milk lasts and if it can go bad. You may be wondering what coconut milk even is!
We’ll take a look at the forms you’ll find coconut milk in, what you might be using it for, and how to store it for a long shelf-life.
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Canned vs Cartoned
Coconut milk typically refers to two different products. Both feature coconut flesh as their main ingredient, but the way this flesh is treated, and what’s added to it in the process, makes a big difference. You’ll commonly find coconut milk either canned or cartoned – let’s look at how these two products differ.
What’s In A Coconut?
If you’ve ever cracked open a coconut you’ll have found two things inside. First, a sweet translucent liquid will be sloshing about in the hollow centre of the coconut. This is the coconut water and although it makes for a delicious beverage with a number of health benefits, it has nothing to do with coconut milk.
The bulk of a coconut is made up of white flesh inside the shell, and coconut milk comes from this flesh. By shredding, pureeing and straining this flesh, coconut milk is produced.
Canned Coconut Milk
When a recipe calls for coconut milk, you’ll most likely reach for a can. The coconut milk in a can is usually made up of 50-60% coconut flesh that has undergone that shredding and straining process. It’s the purest form of coconut milk on the market, and along with water and often a stabilizer such as xanthan or guar gum there won’t be much else going on in there.
Coconut milk like this is rich and creamy and widely used in Asian, African and Caribbean cuisine. It’s incredibly versatile and can provide curries, soups and stews with that creamy texture. You can expect it to separate in the can a little, and don’t be surprised if you find a thick white substance floating atop a milkier base – that’s the coconut cream separating from the water. You can mix these back together or toss the whole thing in the pot and carry on cooking.
Carton Coconut Milk
Traditionally, canned coconut milk for culinary uses was the predominant way you’d find coconut milk on the shelves. But we’re undergoing a milk revolution and non-dairy alternatives to traditional milk are proliferating. This has led to an increase in the popularity of another form of coconut milk, one that competes with almond, soya and oat milk for its place at the breakfast table.
Cartoned coconut milk is marketed as a milk substitute, and so it has been watered down further from the thick, creamy coconut milk you’ll find in a can. Whilst canned coconut milk should be at least 50% coconut extract, in a carton that’s reduced to around 5%. Some natural flavourings will be added to ensure it keeps its coco-nuttiness and often these cartoned coconut milks are fortified with vitamins to make them even more appealing.
Coconut milk from a carton is a great option as a milk substitute. It can add a tropical twist to your black coffee or replace milk in anything from porridge to pancakes.
Both cartoned and canned coconut milk are great additions to your store cupboard – they’re delicious, versatile and nutritionally rich as sources of calcium, fat and protein. Before you start stocking up however, it’s essential to know long coconut milk lasts and how to store it.
Does Coconut Milk Go Bad? How Long Does It Last?
We all know the consequences of letting dairy milk go bad, but what about non-dairy substitutes like coconut milk? In both forms, canned and cartoned, coconut milk will have a finite lifespan – but another benefit of this non-dairy option is that it will last longer than dairy milk in any circumstance.
Before you open it, your cartoned coconut milk is in an aseptic environment – this means that the milk itself and the carton were sterilized before packaging. This creates a long shelf life, and cartoned coconut milk can last for up to a year in your store cupboard. Packaged like this, it doesn’t need refrigerated – until opened.
Once you open a carton, you break the aseptic seal and the shelf life is dramatically reduced. From the time of opening a carton, your coconut milk will last around seven to ten days before it starts to go bad. If you’re tempted to keep your coconut milk around for any longer than that, you’ll need to know the signs that your coconut milk has turned.
Canned coconut milk – the thicker variety – will last even longer. Typically, a can of coconut milk will have a use by date of between two and five years, but your coconut milk might be good for much longer. To know if your coconut has gone bad, you’ll need to learn the telltale signs.
A good rule of thumb is that an opened can of coconut milk will last for five to seven days before it starts to go bad.
It’s worth noting that occasionally you’ll find coconut milk in the refrigerated section, neither canned nor in an aseptic carton. Don’t make the mistake of thinking this will be good for a year or more. Coconut milk in plastic or glass packaging is likely to need refrigerated, and to last not more than a few days even then.
How To Tell If Your Coconut Milk Has Gone Bad
If you opened your coconut milk a few days ago, it’s time to check if it’s gone bad before you use it.
The first thing to do is a smell test. When coconut milk goes bad it develops a sour smell that’s instantly recognizable to the nose. If your coconut milk begins to lose its subtle nutty scent, it’s time for the trash.
If you’re unsure how your coconut milk should smell, a small taste will help you identify coconut milk gone bad. A drop won’t kill you, and any sourness will tell you your coconut milk has passed its best.
Cartoned coconut milk should be a smooth, thin liquid so any lumps will be a sure sign your coconut milk has turned. However, canned coconut with a higher content of coconut extract naturally separates so you can’t let a few lumps throw you off – thick coconut cream can be mixed back in without any harm.
How To Store Coconut Milk
Unopened cans and cartons have a lengthy shelf life if stored correctly. Keep them in a dark place without exposure to temperature extremes to maximize their lifespan.
Once opened, both of these products should be refrigerated and sealed until your next use. Some argue canned foods should be decanted into another container before being stored in the fridge. This is because the zinc or iron in the can degrades under cold temperatures and can give your coconut milk a metallic flavour.
It’s also worth giving cartoned coconut milk a thorough shake before you open the carton, as minor separation between the coconut extract and the water content can occur.
Can You Freeze Coconut Milk?
If you’re running out of time to use your opened coconut milk, freezing is a great option to increase its lifespan. But when you freeze coconut milk the coconut extract and water are guaranteed to separate. If you’re going to be cooking with it at a later date, they will recombine in the pan.
One convenient way to freeze coconut milk is in your ice cube tray! These coconut ice cubes can jazz up cocktails or smoothies at a moment’s notice.
Coconut milk is a versatile and tasty ingredient, so you won’t want to waste a drop. Now you know how long coconut milk lasts and how to store it for a long lifespan.