All about condensed milk
Always delicious (even spooned straight from the can – shhh, it’s a guilty pleasure!), condensed milk is a shelf-stable but versatile ingredient that is a must have in kitchens around the world. From Asia to Africa to the Americas, this unique ingredient adds flavor and texture to desserts, cakes, toppings, sauces, yogurts, ice creams, and drinks that range from hot chocolate to Vietnamese iced coffee.
How is sweetened condensed milk made?
Often called sweetened condensed milk, this creamy treat is concentrated by removing about 60% of the water content from fresh milk. Rich, thick, and slightly golden, it is then sweetened with 40% to 45% sugar before it is canned. When simply condensed without sweetening, this product is called evaporated milk.
History of sweetened condensed milk
We all know how quickly fresh milk can sour in warmer weather, particularly when refrigeration is not easily available. Back in the early 1800s, French food preservation scientist Nicolas Appert found a solution to this problem: he boiled fresh unsweetened milk in an open pan and then preserved it in a sealed container that was then heated.
He was followed by British merchant Peter Durand, who invented and patented (in 1810) his own method of preserving food, the tin cans. Meanwhile, U.S. entrepreneur Gail Borden Jr was experimenting with ways of safeguarding food supplies through more effective conservation and preservation. With refrigeration technology still in its infancy, he focused on developing long-life food items, particularly through dehydration and concentration. Although his dried beef biscuits flopped with consumers, his evaporated milk proved popular. Protected by British and UK patents issued in 1853 and pumped up by the American Civil War, demands for his products rose rapidly, expanding into processes for condensing fruit juices, beef extracts, and coffee.
In Europe, the Anglo-Swiss Condensed Milk Company was established in 1866 with help from U.S. brothers Charles and George Page. Making good use of Switzerland’s abundant fresh milk supplies, they set up Europe’s first condensed milk factory, providing a rapidly industrializing Europe with a safe and long-life alternative to fresh milk under a brand that is still familiar today: Milkmaid.
As cities expanded, steamships and railroads spurred international trade in consumer goods, lowering commodity prices to levels affordable by the masses. In 1905, Anglo-Swiss merged with the baby food firm set up by Henri Nestlé, forming the initial core of a conglomerate whose products are sold worldwide via the Nestlé Group
Condensed milk and coffee in Vietnam
Under French colonial rule (1884 – 1954), Vietnam absorbed many aspects of European culture. With a hot and humid climate that was perfect for growing coffee and a dairy industry that was still incipient until World War I, this combination opened up a market hungry for canned condensed milk. By the 1920s, the French habit of chatting for hours over cups of sweet and creamy Vietnamese coffee – preferably iced – was firmly entrenched, particularly at the Sofitel Legend Metropole Hotel in Hanoi.
From there, it spread to the Vietnamese people, soon becoming an integral part of the nation’s culture, sweetening the intense but bitter flavor of the local robusta slow drip with creamy swirls of canned sweetness.
In fact, Vietnam is the world’s largest Robusta coffee grower, ranking second worldwide for coffee production in general. With double the caffeine in robusta beans, Vietnamese coffee is renowned as a powerful energy jolt. Vietnam’s output also includes citrusy typica beans (an arabica offshoot) grown at higher altitudes. Originally developed in Portugal in 1959, the Catimor varietal is another high-yield hybrid whose beans release a nutty, herbal aroma, with distinct cherry and berry notes.
Because of their local growing conditions, Vietnamese robusta coffees often have bolder, deeper flavors with nuttier profiles, compared to beans grown in other parts of the world. With 60% less sugar and fats than arabica coffees, they also have higher antioxidant properties. Simultaneously sweet and savory, refreshing and earthy, with hints of chocolate and nuts, traditionalcà phê sữa đá has an unmistakably rich mouthfeel.
Preparing Vietnamese iced coffee (cà phê sữa đá) takes time. However, watching that fragrant black liquid drip through a stainless steel phin filter and pool on the gooey dollop of condensed milk filling the bottom of the glass is a gastronomic ritual that cannot be hurried. Next comes a quick swirl that cuts the coffee bitterness with creamy sweetness, making a drink that is served piping hot or refreshingly cold over ice. Phin filters are a must to get that full robusta flavor. The traditional phin is divided into three sections: a filter chamber, a gravity press or screw-on press, and a lid that doubles as a saucer, avoiding coffee grounds and water pooling on the table once brewing is complete.
Condensed milk in the USA today
Despite their similar packaging, sweetened condensed milks can vary significantly in terms of ingredients, with different flavors, textures and creaminess. Some contain only sugar and full-cream milk, while others are ‘filled’: a blend of skimmed milk with added vegetable oils.
Customers walking into any supermarket are spoiled for choices when it comes to canned dairy products. The shelves are packed with brands like Eagle, Longevity, Parrot, Magnolia, Carnation, and Baker’s Corner, many made by household names that are respected worldwide for their quality. There are also specialty brands – like Santini Foods and Nature’s Charm – that cater to specific markets with dietary restrictions.
We’ve reviewed each brand to help YOU pick your favorites:
- Eagle offers three canned options made from only milk and sugar (sweetened, fat-free sweetened and evaporated milk), that are rated as the sweetest and thickest on the market, plus a handy squeeze bottle of sweetened condensed milk for easy serving.
- Longevity is a favorite Vietnamese brand made from 100% whole milk and sugar, with extra milk for added creaminess; as a result, its supporters feel that it lightens coffee (despite a slight chalkiness) more effectively than other options that contain vegetable oils and thickeners.
- Parrot is made from nonfat milk, sugar, and palm oil, with added Vitamin A Palmitate, and riboflavin; it is distributed in the USA and Canada by Sun Hing Foods, which is a well-known ethnic food wholesaler and distributor, particularly to the Asian, West Indian and Latinx communities, backed by ample experience in manufacturing dairy products overseas.
- Magnolia is available in three versions: sweetened and fat-free condensed milk, and evaporated milk; a member of the Eagle Family Food Group, it has been on the market for almost seven decades.
- Carnation has only two ingredients (whole milk and sugar), and is thicker and sweeter than its competitors; it’s made by Nestlé and is available in cans and drizzle bottles, including a caramel version.
- Baker’s Corner is a slightly less sweet condensed milk (an evaporated version is also available) that is designed for making desserts, cakes, and drinks, with a creamy texture and light color.
- Black & White is another member of the Sun Hing Foods family that is often found in Asian markets. Its range includes evaporated and condensed milks in full cream and extra creamy versions made from whole milk and sugar, and evaporated or concentrated milks with liquid sugar, and lactose; filled versions contain nonfat milk, sugar, palm oil, Vitamin A palmitate, and riboflavin.
- Santini Foods produces gluten-free condensed milks under the Santini and California Farms brands that are halal and kosher certified, as well as organic condensed and evaporated milks.
- Nature’s Charm introduced its sweetened condensed coconut milk for vegans in 2014, after two years of trials. A year later, its refined sugar-free evaporated coconut milk was launched on the market.
With prices starting at under a dollar a can, sweetened condensed milk is a staple in many homes, particularly with children. Energy-dense and high in sugar, this nourishing treat also contains protein, fat, and a range of minerals and vitamins.
A single ounce (two tablespoons) generally contains over two grams of protein, and significant percentages of other nutrients measured by the Reference Daily Intake: around 8% calcium; 10% phosphorus; 7% selenium and riboflavin; and 4% Vitamin B12 and choline.
Homemade condensed milk
There’s no need to panic if that last can of condensed milk has somehow (check for sticky fingerprints!) vanished from the larder and the stores are closed. It’s easy to make this sweet treat at home in an ordinary saucepan, using fresh, evaporated, powdered or plant-based milks.
A regular 14 ounce can of sweetened condensed milk can be replaced in any recipe with a large cup of these luscious do-it-yourself versions, which can be frozen or stored in the refrigerator for up to six months.
Here’s how to make your own sweetened condensed milk:
- Fresh milk: bring two cups of milk (full fat or low fat) and two-thirds of a cup of white sugar to a slow boil and then simmer gently for 30 to 40 minutes without stirring, until it reduces by half and all the sugar dissolves; pour into a jar and leave to cool before sealing with an airtight lid and storing in the refrigerator.
- Evaporated milk: blend a can of evaporated milk with half a cup of granulated sugar and gently bring to a boil, stirring constantly until the sugar dissolves; leave to cool and store in a sealed jar in the refrigerator.
- Powdered milk: pour a cup of boiling water into a blender jug and add a quarter cup of margarine or butter and two cups of sugar. Blend thoroughly, then slowly add four cups of full-cream or no-fat milk powder, blending after each cup. Store in the refrigerator until needed in a sealed jar.
- Vegan: heat and whisk a can of coconut, almond, rice, or soy milk with half a cup of monk fruit, agave nectar, brown rice syrup, or coconut sugar, and simmer for thirty minutes; leave to cool and blend in a quarter teaspoon of xanthan gum for extra thickness, then store in a sealed jar in the refrigerator.
- Low-calorie: slash the calories in any of these recipes by using skim milk, replacing sugar or syrup with no-cal sweeteners like stevia, erythritol, or aspartame, and adding a teaspoon of gelatin for added consistency.
Chef’s Treat: when blending the sugar and milk, add a pat of butter, a spoonful of honey or maple syrup, a few drops of vanilla essence, a sprinkle of cinnamon or a little nutmeg for extra flavor.
Does the condensed milk brand make a difference?
Some diehard Vietnamese coffee fans claim that most brands of condensed milk are too sweet and not creamy enough to balance the powerful flavor of phin filter Vietnamese coffee. However, demographics play an important role here as different ethnicities have traditional ways of using condensed milk, preferring different degrees of sweetness. Throughout Latin America, flan is a family favorite, while no party in Brazil is complete without brigadeiros, all of which use condensed milk as a main ingredient.
Blended with whipping cream and fresh fruit, sweetened condensed milk is the perfect ingredient for home-made ice creams, smoothies and yogurts. The list is endless and global! And all these sweet treats lead to a single conclusion: there’s no such thing as the best condensed milk – because they’re all delicious in their own right and are subject to personal preference! Our best advice? Try several kinds before deciding which is your personal perfect!
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