Learn all about evaporated milk and condensed milk — what they are, common substitutes, and how to use them — in this canned dairy primer.

Evaporated milk and condensed milk are easy to mix up. They have similar names and appearances, and they're right next to each other on supermarket shelves. But despite their commonalities, the two ingredients have very different impacts - the last thing you want to do is accidentally put condensed milk into homemade macaroni or mashed potatoes.

The easiest way to tell the difference between evaporated and condensed milk is by familiarizing yourself with how both products are made. Read on for the history of canned milk, how to make your own evaporated and condensed milk, and the best dairy-free substitutions for evaporated and condensed milk.

The Difference Between Evaporated and Condensed Milk

There's a reason evaporated and condensed milk get mixed up: Both evaporated and condensed milk and made using the same process. The difference between the two lies in the ingredients: Condensed milk contains added sugar, which impacts the overall taste, appearance, and consistency.

condensed vs. evaporated milk Photo by Meredith_resized
Photo by Meredith

What Is Evaporated Milk?

Before refrigeration was widely available, fresh milk was delivered daily. The arrival of canned milk was a much-heralded convenience. The invention of canned evaporated milk ended up being a lifesaver for people without refrigeration, and years later, canned condensed milk hit the market.

To make evaporated milk, fresh, homogenized milk is heated to a simmer until the liquid is reduced by 60 percent through evaporation, a common technique used by chefs when making sauces. The result is a milk that has a rich, creamy texture and a concentrated level of nutrients, especially calcium and Vitamin D. Cooking the milk breaks down the proteins known as caseins, which makes the evaporated product less likely to curdle when used in recipes.

Evaporated Milk Uses

Thanks to its velvety quality, evaporated milk is a "secret" ingredient in many sauces. It makes the creamiest macaroni and cheese, fluffs up mashed potatoes and turns soup extra spoon-able without the heaviness of cream. Evaporated milk is also the cornerstone of many puddings, including flan, as well frosting and fudge. It's also a Thanksgiving staple, as pumpkin pie wouldn't exist without it.

Evaporated Milk Substitutes

If you don't have evaporated milk available, it's possible to substitute a cup of light cream. Or you can make your own: Evaporated milk, as the name suggests, simply involves simmering milk - whole or reduced fat - until the liquid has been reduced 60 percent. about 25 minutes. The homemade evaporated milk should be cooled in the fridge before use in most recipes. It can be stored in an airtight container for up to 10 days.

If you're looking for a dairy-free substitute, check specialty stores or Amazon for evaporated coconut milk.

What Is Condensed Milk?

Condensed milk follows the same slow-cook process, but there's also sugar in the mix, so it becomes thick and caramelized. That means the difference between evaporated and condensed milk all boils down to condensed milk's added sugar. Here's another way to think of it: Condensed milk is evaporated milk with added sugar. Sweetened evaporated milk exists in the form of condensed milk, but there's no such thing as unsweetened condensed milk - that's just evaporated milk.

Condensed Milk Uses

Condensed milk's sugar content makes it a common ingredient in desserts and sweet treats: think Magic Cookie Bars, Tres Leches cake, and banana pudding. It's what gives Thai Iced Tea its creamy sweetness, and forms the foundation for the decorative icing known as fondant. It likes to party in the winter, turning snow into Sweetened Condensed Milk Ice Cream.

Condensed Milk Substitutes

If you don't have sweetened condensed milk, you can make your own using evaporated milk and sugar, or you can substitute this mixture: Bring 3/4 cup white sugar, 1/2 cup water, and 1- 1/8 cups dry powdered milk to a boil and cook, stirring frequently, until thickened, about 20 minutes.

You can also make a dairy-free condensed milk substitute using coconut milk, powdered sugar, salt, and vanilla extract.

edited sweetened condensed milk crema and dulce de leche
Photo by Leslie Kelly
By Leslie Kelly and Sarra Sedghi