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Why Does Coconut Milk Curdle? (And How to Stop it)

Why Does Coconut Milk Curdle? (And How to Stop it)
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Just about everyone knows that food will, with time, become unable to be eaten. In many cases, this will be due to the food becoming covered in mold, wilting, or otherwise deteriorating past a point where it can be eaten.

However, there are some cases where food might not look as if it is doing well, but you can bring it back from the brink of being unusable.

With these kinds of foods, you are going to have to be careful about the quality of the food. There is a fine line between when food is still viable and useable with a little bit of doctoring, and then there are situations where food is completely unusable and detrimental to your health.

You should always trust your gut feeling on whether or not you should try and salvage any food that looks as if it is going to go bad. After all, you can always purchase more of the food if you are in desperate need of it, and there is no reason to risk your health over bringing back food from going bad.

There are very few foods that allow you to do this, but one such food is going to be coconut milk. Coconut milk isn’t quite the same as your standard dairy milk in the sense that it can curdle and be used in other dairy products. Instead, coconut milk curdling results as a natural reaction to heat.

To understand why coconut milk curdles in the first place, you are going to need to understand what exactly coconut milk is and what separates it from other milk and milk alternatives.

What Is Coconut Milk?

What is coconut milk

In a strange way, coconut milk can be thought of as coconut juice. Coconut milk isn’t made with anything special about the coconut and it doesn’t go through any special production process to turn it into the common cooking ingredient that it is today.

Coconut milk is made with a considerably similar process to how your typical fruit juice is made, and coconuts are a fruit so it wouldn’t be incorrect to call coconut milk a fruit juice.

When coconuts are brought in to be processed for coconut milk, there isn’t much that needs to be done to get the milk from the meat of the fruit. First things first, the flesh of the coconut (the white part) is going to be grated and collected.

When as much from the flesh of the coconut can be collected, it will all be placed into a container with hot water in it to boil.

As the coconut flesh begins to cook a little bit and dissolve in the heat of the water, it will separate into two distinct substances. The coconut cream will rise to the top of the container, and this cream is then skimmed off the milk and sold as coconut cream for other foods and purposes.

The remaining liquid after the cream was skimmed away will then be put through a cheesecloth to further extract any pulp that might be left in the liquid.

What remains and comes through the cheese cloth is officially coconut milk. Some companies and manufacturers that specialize in a thinner variant of coconut milk might repeat the final step of putting the coconuts through the cheesecloth one more time to thin it out more.

This is sometimes done for cooking coconut oil, or it can be done if you prefer to have a thinner type of coconut milk to drink.

Now that you understand a little bit more about how coconut milk is made and what it is specifically made from, you will be able to get a better understanding of not only why coconut milk has the tendency to curdle, but you may be able to think of some ideas to reverse the curdling and to keep the texture of the milk exactly what you want it to be.

The Answer Behind the Curdling

curdled coconut milk

Coconut milk, when it is completely raw and doesn’t have any additives in it, consists of coconut oils, protein, and some degree of water. This is most common with coconut milk used for cooking traditional Thai foods.

As Thailand is naturally a very humid and warm environment, coconut milk is able to naturally be stable at room temperature without curdling.

This is due to the proteins in the coconut milk that act as a natural emulsifier when the environment around the milk is at around room temperature. This emulsifier keeps coconut milk a homogeneous mixture, with the natural coconut oils and the natural coconut water able to mix together to become the coconut milk that everyone knows and loves.

However, when the temperature begins to soar above room temperature, such as when the coconut milk is being cooked, that emulsifier becomes denatured. In the realm of science, when the protein changes its shape due to an outside influence (such as heat), the protein’s functions will also begin to change and it will not perform the same tasks as it would if it hadn’t been denatured.

From here, without the emulsifying protein to keep the water and the oil a smooth mixture, the two liquids will begin to separate on their own, which will come across as curdling.

The protein’s new function will not only allow the milk to separate between oil and water, but it will also begin to produce oil of its own and create tight chains around it, which will only get bigger if the milk is not stirred early enough.

These massive and tight chains of protein can be seen in the milk as curds. They will be small white specks in the coconut milk at first, and as the milk continues to curdle, they will become more and more visible.

Curiously enough, when the temperature is very high, the curds can be harder to see and smaller in appearance, though they will still form.

This means that coconut milk curdling is a very natural response from the coconut milk as a way to react to the environment around it. If you are not storing your coconut milk in an area of the house that is cooler or at most room temperature, then you may be susceptible to getting curds in your coconut milk.

They will also happen when you are cooking coconut milk for a meal, but when they happen in this setting, a frequent stir will be enough to stop the curds from forming until you are done with your recipe.

Now that you know about how coconut milk curdles, what causes the curds to form, and how the science behind it works, you may begin to wonder if there is anything you can do to try and stop the curds once they appear.

Depending on how far along your coconut milk is in the process of curdling, you may be able to still salvage it, leaving you with the smooth coconut milk that you have always wanted.

Getting Rid of Curdles in Coconut Milk

If you are worried about your coconut milk curdling as you cook it, you don’t need to worry too much as it is incredibly easy to get rid of the curds.

First, it is important to note that the curds in coconut milk do not affect the taste or the texture of it, as they are so small they really cannot be felt, especially when mixed into a recipe that is just using coconut milk as a base.

This means that curds in coconut milk are purely a flaw in the appearance of them and will have no impact on the rest of the dish.

If you still want to do what you can to remove the curds in coconut milk, all you are going to need is a little bit of time and some cornstarch. In some cases, depending on how developed the curds are, you won’t even need the cornstarch to get rid of the curds.

To make sure that you won’t need anything, there is another method that you are going to want to try first.

Considering that curds really only develop as the protein breaks down, changes form, and begins binding to itself, all you really need to do is break that protein apart. While it may be tightly bound together, a bond on a molecular level isn’t always strong compared to the strength of you stirring the coconut milk.

While you are cooking coconut milk in a recipe and you see curds appearing, all you will have to do is run a spoon through them a few times to get them to dissipate. This is what most people do when faced with curds in their coconut milk as they cook it, and stirring also helps mix in whatever additional ingredients you might be adding to your food.

You can also consider adding cornstarch to your coconut milk as well, if you are feeling desperate to get all of the curds out.

For this method, all you will need to do is add one tablespoon of cornstarch per 400 ml of coconut milk. This should equal about one tablespoon of cornstarch for one standard container of coconut milk.

Adding this to the milk should ensure that it will not curdle or split throughout the heating process, but you will need to cook it out for about 10 minutes to ensure that there is no flour taste left behind.

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