What Is Sweetened Condensed Milk?

Buying, Baking, and Recipes

Sweetened condensed milk in a small bowl

EugeneTomeev / Getty Images

Sweetened condensed milk is an ingredient found in innumerable desserts and candies, as well as creamy beverages. To make sweetened condensed milk, cow's milk is first condensed by removing the water, and then it is sweetened with the addition of sugar (hence the name), resulting in a very sweet, thick mixture with an off-white color. Condensed milk is sold in cans, is shelf-stable, and is usually found in the baking aisle of the supermarket.

Fast Facts

  • Also known as: condensed milk
  • Shelf Life: can last for years unopened
  • Where to find: baking aisle of grocery store


What Is Sweetened Condensed Milk?

Sweetened condensed milk, often referred to simply as condensed milk, is a product made by gently heating whole milk until about 60 percent of the water has evaporated and then adding sugar to a ratio of about 45 percent (by weight) of the remaining milk. The result is a thick, sweet, sticky mixture that is used in all kinds of recipes, including baked goods, candies, desserts, drinks, and even marinades. The evaporation process also causes some of the natural sugars in the milk to caramelize, bringing a new dimension of flavor.

The heating process also pasteurizes the milk, and the addition of sugar makes it shelf-stable since sugar prevents the growth of bacteria that cause spoilage and food poisoning.

Sweetened condensed milk is an ingredient in baking, including cookies and bars like brownies and blondies, cakes, and pies, and is used to make candies, fudge, puddings, frostings and toppings, and even ice cream.

Condensed Milk vs. Evaporated Milk

Sweetened condensed milk is often confused with evaporated milk, a similar product that is also sold in a can with a comparable size and shape. Both are evaporated milk, but whereas sweetened condensed milk has added sugar, evaporated milk does not. Basically, condensed milk is the sweetened version of evaporated milk.

Because there is a significant amount of sugar added to condensed milk, it completely changes not only the flavor but also the consistency of the product. The added sugar makes condensed milk substantially thicker than evaporated milk. While evaporated milk is creamy, condensed milk is more syrupy. There are recipes that call for both types of canned milk, such as caramel flan, but it is not recommended to swap one for the other.

How to Cook With Sweetened Condensed Milk

Condensed milk adds a lovely creaminess and sweetness to a wide range of dishes, especially desserts. To use, it is simply poured or spooned from the can into the other ingredients. There is also a recipe for dulce de leche candy that calls for boiling the entire sealed can in water for several hours until the milk has solidified and caramelized. Condensed milk is also found in drinks like Vietnamese iced coffee and hot chocolate, but it should not be used as a beverage on its own.

Because condensed milk pairs well with coconut, it is sometimes used in savory, spicy Asian dishes, like coconut curry, or as a marinade for satay chicken or pork. 

What Does It Taste Like?

Sweetened condensed milk is like a can of liquid candy. It has a sweet, rich, milky, caramelized flavor, and a thick, syrupy consistency.

Substitutes

There is not a perfect store-bought substitute for sweetened condensed milk, but if in a pinch you can use cream of coconut, which is coconut cream with sugar added. You may also be able to find sweetened condensed coconut milk in the natural foods section of the supermarket. If adding coconut flavor is not appealing, however, you can make your own sweetened condensed milk using whole milk, evaporated milk, or instant nonfat dry milk powder; for a vegan version, non-dairy milk can be used. The basic recipe is to boil the milk product along with sugar and then simmer until reduced and thick.

Condensed Milk Recipes

Sweetened condensed milk is indispensable for making desserts like flan, dulce de leche, and tres leches cake, but is also used in a variety of other desserts.

Where to Buy Condensed Milk

Sweetened condensed milk is sold in small cans and can be found in the baking aisle of the supermarket. It is generally shelved alongside its unsweetened counterpart, evaporated milk, which comes in similar-looking cans from the same manufacturers, so make sure that you read the label carefully. Condensed milk will clearly state that it is "sweetened" and use the word "condensed," not "evaporated." Conversely, if you see the word "evaporated" on the label, it won't be the sweet version. 

Storage

Since it comes in a can, sweetened condensed milk is extremely shelf-stable. As long as the can is unopened, it can last in the pantry for years. Once the can is opened, however, the unused portion should be stored in a new container in the refrigerator where it will last for about two weeks.