How to Make Coconut Milk

A few tools and a bit of elbow grease yields the freshest coconut milk possible.

Side view of coconut milk surrounded by coconuts
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Making fresh coconut milk is actually quite simple, but it does require some effort and tools that are more likely to be found in your toolbox than your kitchen. Yes, we do call for a screwdriver and a hammer in this recipe, but the effort is well worth the reward. The subtly sweet and nutty flavor of fresh coconut milk has layers of complexity that its canned equivalent can never achieve. While canned coconut milk is a totally acceptable and convenient ingredient, its flavor doesn't rival the from-scratch, likely due to canned losing some of its more delicate flavor compounds during processing under high heat, and having emulsifiers or stabilizers often added to it.

If you want your dishes that contain coconut milk to reach their fullest potential, fresh is the way to go.

Reach For Your Toolbox: How to Safely Open a Fresh Coconut

The prospect of opening a fresh coconut can be intimidating at first. Its hard and round shell makes it tricky to hold steady when applying pressure to open. Do not be tempted to pick up your biggest knife possible and just start hacking away at it. The amount of force and pressure needed to cut through the coconut could result in serious injury, or, best case scenario, wasted coconut water splashed over your cutting board and kitchen floor along with fragments of coconut meat.

The first step to extracting coconut milk is to ensure a safe working environment. Secure a cutting board to the kitchen counter with a non-slip pad or wet paper towels, then top with a kitchen towel that you are comfortable getting messy. (Keep those fine tea towels folded in their drawer for another use.) Now the coconut can be nestled into the towel. The soft fabric will hold it securely in place when applying pressure to open, more so than a smooth cutting board would.

Overhead view of coconut and hammer
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

One of the key ingredients in making fresh coconut milk is the coconut water trapped inside. The best way to open the shell while still preserving the coconut water is to pearce open two of the three “eyes.”—the cluster of small circular indentations on one end of the coconut The coconut eyes are actually the seed's germination pores (a hard, brown coconut shell is, in fact, the seed of the coconut fruit).

As mentioned earlier, do not reach for a big sharp knife to pierce the eyes, instead open your toolbox. A screwdriver with its pointed metal end and long handle is ideal for piercing the eyes open. With the coconut mounted in place on the kitchen towel, hold the screwdriver steady with the pointed end flush to the eye and use a hammer to tap the back of the screwdriver’s handle. Start gently, and hammer, increasing pressure if needed, until punctured. 

Once you've punched through two of the eyes, the coconut water can then be poured into a bowl without losing a drop. Since the volume of coconut water will differ from coconut to coconut, I recommend adding water, if needed, to measure three cups of total liquid. This ensures there is enough liquid to blend into a smooth mixture once the coconut meat is extracted and added.

The drained coconut can now be cracked fully open with the hammer. Once cracked open, use a spoon or paring knife to patiently separate the coconut meat from the outer shell. Forewarning, this is arguably the most time consuming part of this process, especially if this is your first coconut. It’s okay if some of the thin brown skin stays attached to the coconut meat, but it's important that all of the hard outer shell is removed. Not only is the shell harder to blend, but it imparts an unwanted bitter flavor as well.

Blend, Twist, Strain: Making Fresh Coconut Milk

Now it’s time to blend. Add the measured three cups coconut water (with added water if needed) and the coconut meat to a blender and blend on the lowest speed, then slowly increase to maximum speed. Increasing the speed in increments will insure you maintain a vortex while blending. I highly recommend using a high-powered blender. A blender with less motor power may struggle to fully break down the firm coconut meat. It will still work, but the results will not be as creamy or smooth as when using a high-powered blender.

Side view of straining coconut
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Once blended, transfer to a strainer lined with cheesecloth, gather the sides of the cheesecloth together, and twist, squeezing until all of the coconut milk is extracted from the pulp. For easier handling, this can be done in two or three smaller batches as well. When you're done, all that should be left inside the cheesecloth is dried coconut pulp.

Sip, Cook, or Freeze: How to Use and Store Fresh Coconut Milk

The freshly extracted coconut milk is amazing sipped as-is, or it can be substituted for canned coconut milk in any recipe where canned is called for. It’s an instant upgrade to your favorite curry, and I highly recommend cooking it down until thick and sweet in the satisfying fish-forward Jamaican breakfast called rundown.

If you don’t plan on enjoying fresh coconut milk right away, store it in an airtight container and refrigerate it for up to two days. Once the milk has been sitting, the fat, water, and sediments will begin to settle and separate. Simply give it a hard shake or stir to recombine before using. Alternatively, the fresh coconut milk can be frozen for up to one month. If planning to use it in small quantities later on, try pouring the coconut milk into an ice cube tray to freeze. You can then pop out just a few ice cubes, thaw them in the fridge overnight, and then use as desired—they're a great addition to breakfast smoothies.

While making fresh coconut milk is not an everyday task, the sweet and rich coconut milk is well worth the effort.

Place the coconut on a folded kitchen towel on top of a cutting board (this creates a steady work surface). Using a screwdriver, and tapping it with a hammer if necessary, puncture and open 2 of the 3 eyes on top of the coconut. Pour the coconut water through the opened eyes into a 4-cup (1L) measuring cup or or large bowl, then add enough water, if needed, to total 3 cups (710ml); set aside.

Side view of emptying coconut walk into a measuring cup
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Using a hammer, crack the now-drained coconut shell fully open. Remove kitchen towel from the cutting board. Using a spoon or small knife, carefully pry out coconut meat, separating it from the shell. Make sure to remove all hard shell pieces, though it is okay if bits of the thin brown skin remain attached to the meat.

Two image collage of using a hammer to open coconut and taking the skin off of
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Transfer coconut meat and reserved coconut water mixture to a high-powered blender and blend, tamping with the blender's tamper (if it has one) or stopping and scraping down the sides as needed, until coconut mixture is thoroughly pureed into a milky slurry.

Overhead view of coconut milk
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Line a fine-mesh strainer with a double layer of cheesecloth and set it over a large bowl. Pour the blended coconut slurry into the prepared strainer. Gather the cheesecloth up around the slurry, then twist directly over the strainer to enclose the slurry. Continue to twist and squeeze cheesecloth over the strainer, tightening the packet and expressing coconut milk as you go, until no more coconut milk can be expressed and only the now-dry coconut pulp remains in the touch. Discard coconut pulp and reserve strained coconut milk; you should have about 3 cups (710ml).

Four image collage of straining coconut milk
Serious Eats / Karina Matalon

Special Equipment

Screwdriver, hammer, high-powered blender, fine-mesh strainer with cheesecloth.

Make-Ahead and Storage

The freshly made coconut milk can be stored in an airtight container and refrigerated for up to 2 days or frozen for up to 4 weeks. Thaw in the refrigerator until liquid, about 24 hours, before using.