Cooking Tips · Ingredients

Canned Milk Products

I was making homemade ice cream this week and my recipe called for a can of evaporated milk. That caused me to wonder if the average person knows the difference between that product and the other canned milk product – sweetened condensed milk – and when to use them. Afterall, they are both in little cans that look similar but they are very different products. That is the subject of this Cooking Tip.

Let’s start with the definition of milk. According to the FDA, “Milk is the lacteal secretion, practically free from colostrum, obtained by the complete milking of one or more healthy cows … that shall have been pasteurized or ultra-pasteurized.” All of us know what milk is and where it comes from but have you ever defined it like that? That’s government-speak for you.

The different types of milk and other dairy products vary by their milkfat content. Here are the percentages of each kind from the highest to the lowest fat content. This will help you make decisions about substitutions for the canned milk if necessary.

  • Heavy cream – not less than 36% milkfat
  • Light whipping cream – between 30% and 36% milkfat
  • Light cream – not less than 18% milkfat
  • Half and half – a mixture of milk and cream to create a product that is between 10.5% and 18% milkfat
  • Whole milk – not less than 3.25% milkfat
  • Reduced fat – about 2% milkfat
  • Low fat – about 1% milkfat
  • Skim/fat-free – essentially no fat

Evaporated Milk

To make this product, fresh milk is simmered until the liquid is reduced by about 60%. This results in a product that is concentrated and creamy. The cooking process breaks down the milk proteins (caseins), which means it is less likely to curdle in your recipes.

According to the FDA, it must contain not less than 6.5% milkfat. It is homogenized and contains vitamin D. The addition of vitamin A is optional. It is processed by heat to prevent spoilage.

It will be sweeter than regular milk as the natural sugar in milk, lactose, has been concentrated during the evaporation process.

This type of milk is often used to give a creamy texture to dishes such as sauces, macaroni/cheese, mashed potatoes, puddings, fudge, etc.

It can stand in as a substitute for regular milk in recipes by adding an equal amount of water. However, it will cause a deeper color with a slightly sweet, caramelized flavor. So, it may not be something you want to use for your bechamel sauce.

If you do not have a can in your pantry, you can use a fresh dairy product. Use the milkfat content info above to pick a suitable choice. You may also use a mixture such as for one cup of evaporated milk, mix ¼ cup cream with ¾ cup whole milk.

Another alternative is to make your own. All you have to do is to simmer milk until the volume is reduced by about 60%. It can be stored in the refrigerator in an air-tight container for up to 10 days.

Condensed Milk

This is also known as “sweetened condensed milk” and therein lies the difference between this product and evaporated milk. Sugar to the tune of 40-45% is added to the milk. As it is boiled down, it becomes very thick and caramelized.

Due to the sugar, this product is mostly used in desserts such as puddings and sweet custards. It is also a key ingredient to Thai iced tea. In baked goods, it provides tenderness, moisture and flavor as well as adding color to pastry crusts.

According to the FDA, it must contain not less than 8% milkfat. It is pasteurized and homogenized and contains vitamin D. The addition of vitamin A is optional. The sweetener must be added in sufficient quantity to prevent spoilage.

Because of the sugar, it cannot substitute for evaporated or regular milk. Once again, though, you can make your own. There are different recipes but here are two.

  1. Mix ¾ cup sugar, ½ cup water and 1⅛ cup dry powdered milk and simmer until thickened, stirring frequently.
  2. Heat ⅓ cup + 2 Tbsp evaporated milk or regular milk with 1 cup sugar and 3 Tbsp margarine/butter until sugar dissolves.

Because both of these products are shelf-stable and have different purposes in the kitchen, it is a good idea to have some available rather than substituting. Once opened, just keep the left-overs in an air-tight container in the refrigerator. Do you have some in your pantry right now? I hope so!