Coconut milk won’t solidify no matter what you’ve tried?! It’s a common problem with a simple explanation.
With the growing popularity of Paleo and dairy-free recipes becoming more plentiful, you’ll probably run into dishes that call for the cream from a can of coconut milk as an ingredient (even my Paleo Tzatziki Sauce and Paleo Cucumber Mint Raita list it). Usually, you’re supposed to put the can in the fridge for upwards of 24 hours, then be able to open the can and spoon the solidified cream off the top.
If you’ve ever followed those instructions only to open the can and find your coconut milk’s still soupy, it’s pretty frustrating (especially if you’re making something where a very thick texture is a requirement like coconut whipped cream). So what gives?
Back to Basics…What is Coconut Milk?
When fresh coconut meat is grated down with water, the liquid yielded is call coconut milk. It’s a combination of the water and the different healthy fats in the coconut meat such as fast-burning MCT oil (medium chain triglyercides) and saturated fat.
When it’s prepared via blending, the fat component (often called coconut cream) gets suspended in the watery component, and it appears to combine. But when left to sit undisturbed, the coconut milk will separate into two layers much like a bottle of oil & vinegar salad dressing. [Bonus science nerdiness: the fat is hydrophobic (water-fearing) and is rejected from the water layer.] Normally, the top, semi-hard cream layer is what you’d scoop out and use for recipes.
Why Your Coconut Milk Won’t Solidify
One word: emulsifiers.
Emulsifiers are chemical additives which cause the fatty and watery layers to stop separating from one another, and if they’re in your coconut milk, you’ll probably never get that thick creamy layer at the top of the can no matter what you do. [Another common way to get fatty and watery components to emulsify is by introducing air like you'd do when making homemade mayo.]
Common Coconut Milk Emulsifiers & Additives
1) Guar gum. This is a carbohydrate compound (polysaccharide) that comes from guar beans. It’s very commonly used to thicken coconut milk and cause it to stay emulsified. Often found in canned coconut milk.
2) Carrageenan. Derived from seaweed, this is another polysaccharide carbohydrate used to thicken coconut milk, though more commonly the type sold in paper cartons (not recommended because it’s often full of other junk). Carrageenan’s been implicated as having some pretty gnarly effects on the gut, among other things. Read more about it here.
3) Methyl cellulose or corn starch. More carbohdyrates / polysaccharides used to thicken and emulsify coconut milk.
4) Sodium or potassium metabisulfate. Though not used as an emulsifier, this chemical additive’s put in coconut milk as a preservative / bleaching agent to keep the color white.
The Solution to Get Your Coconut Milk to Solidify?
Buy a brand that doesn’t contain emulsifiers and preservatives. Better yet, look for a brand that only has two ingredients: coconut and water. My favorites are here and here. Both fit the bill and are sold in BPA-free cans, too. You can also make your own coconut milk at home (click here for a great recipe).