An Expert Explains Why High-Quality Cream Of Coconut Is Key For A Better Piña Colada

Nothing beats a perfectly crafted piña colada. Likely born in the coastal city of San Juan, the tropical blended cocktail – originally served as a milkshake – has the unique ability to transport you someplace else with a single sip. Made with just rum, pineapple juice, heavy cream, and cream of coconut, the simplicity of the recipe has made the piña colada a timeless classic. But because it has such a short ingredient list, the quality of its different components is a matter of paramount importance. In fact, Justin Lavenue, owner and operator of The Roosevelt Room and The Eleanor in Austin, Texas, says that when a piña colada falls short, it's probably the result of low-quality cream of coconut.

Different from coconut milk or coconut cream, which are made by blending coconut meat with varying amounts of water, cream of coconut also contains a substantial amount of sugar. It's this syrupy mixture, he says, that can make a piña colada truly restaurant-worthy. "Use a quality cream of coconut, such as Coco Lopez, Reàl, or Goya," Lavenue told Mashed in an exclusive interview. A well-made cream of coconut should be rich in coconut flavor and have a thick consistency, comparable to that of condensed milk. Not only will it work to sweeten the drink, but the high fat content will also make the texture rich and velvety.

Are coconut milk and cream of coconut interchangeable?

While coconut milk's fat content typically lands somewhere around 10%, coconut cream can contain more than twice that. Because cream of coconut is typically made from processed and sweetened coconut cream, it, too, tends to have a higher fat content. That's why Justin Lavenue says coconut milk isn't a worthy substitute for cream of coconut when you're making a piña colada. "It's hard to get the fatty richness of cream of coconut using coconut milk," he told Mashed, adding, "Unless you add coconut oil and sugar."

One of the identifying features of the piña colada is its distinctive creaminess. The fat in the cream of coconut (as well as the heavy cream) works to trap air bubbles when the drink is blended, creating a fantastically frothy effect. Because coconut milk has a thinner consistency and less fat, using it in a piña colada could make for a watery final product. However, if you've only got coconut milk on hand, you can whip up your own cream of coconut by simmering it with coconut oil and sugar. You can even add your makeshift cream of coconut to an easy virgin piña colada recipe for a frozen treat kids will love.