If you confuse evaporated milk and condensed milk once, you'll likely never make the same mistake again. The names of each milk can make things confusing — they sound nearly identical — but cookbook author Sheri Castle says swapping one for the other can wreak havoc on a recipe.
"They're not interchangeable," she says. "They're sold next to one another in the grocery store, and the names are very similar, so it's easy not to the understand the difference. It's important to know what the recipe calls for."
Understanding the components of each milk is the best way to remember which style you need — and which you don't. Castle gave us her intel on evaporated versus condensed milk to avoid those recipe-wrecking snafus.
What Is the Difference?
Evaporated milk is made by simmering milk to reduce the water — hence the name — and it's unsweetened. Condensed milk, on the other hand, is milk cooked with mega quantities of sugar. The result is a thick, pudding-like milk that's actually sweeter than cake frosting.
The primary thing to keep in mind is that evaporated milk is typically the liquid in a recipe, while sweetened condensed milk is used for its sugar, Castle says. That's largely due to how each style of milk is created.
"For evaporated milk, I think reduced milk would actually be the best description because they're cooking off some of the water," Castle says. "Milk has water, milk fat and milk solids in it. What you have left is milk that doesn't have any additives or anything in it, but it's a condensed version. It's a little bit thicker, it has a slight sweet taste — not because it's been sweetened — but because it concentrates the lactose in the milk. It just tastes a little bit richer."
Castle says recipes, including her grandmother's delicious fudge recipe, call for evaporated milk. Other recipes, such as broccoli cheddar soup, may call for evaporated milk. And Castle says she sometimes uses it in her coffee.
Condensed milk, also called sweetened condensed milk or "Eagle brand" after the milk's most common brand, follows a different, sweeter process. "It is milk cooked with a whole lot of sugar, and it's cooked until it reduces and thickens to the consistency of pudding," Castle says. "It's very thick and tends to be used as a free-standing ingredient. It usually fills the role of the sweetener." One 14 ounce- (414-milliliter) can of condensed milk is the equivalent of 1 quart (0.94 liter) of whole milk plus 7 ounces (198 grams) of sugar reduced.
Condensed milk is a staple ingredient in one of Castle's favorite Southern recipes: key lime pie. "You can't make good key lime pie without a can of Eagle brand [condensed milk]," she says. It's also used in common desserts like seven-layer bars.
What Happens If You Use the Wrong One?
While working on a cookbook project with a fellow chef, Castle witnessed the severest of repercussions from swapping condensed milk for evaporated.
"It was an old fried chicken recipe from this wonderful legendary cook in New Orleans, and he marinated his chicken not in buttermilk, but evaporated milk," Castle says. "The person testing the recipe bought a can of Eagle brand [condensed milk] and marinated the chicken and put it in the fryer, and it ignited because of all the sugar."
Sure, a fire may be the extreme, but it's not the only reason evaporated and condensed milk shouldn't be used interchangeably. It really comes down to what each milk adds to your recipe — and taking a beat to double-check those labels.
"If you're making broccoli cheddar soup, you have to step back and think, now wait, would I really want to put all this sugar in here?" Castle says. "It's really easy to get confused on the differences or pick up one instead of the other, so make sure you know what the recipe calls for."
Originally Published: Nov 11, 2007