My Easy Key Lime Pie needs sweetened condensed milk to transform the lime juice and egg yolks into a sweet, silky filling – no sugar required. On the other hand, Pumpkin Pie needs evaporated milk to bring the pumpkin, sugar, spices, and eggs together to create a dense, smooth filling. Both are pies. Why does one use sweetened condensed milk and the other use evaporated milk? Is it the same product? Are evaporated milk and condensed milk interchangeable? I mean, they share the same shelf at the grocery store, and the cans practically look alike.
Let’s keep this simple: NO. The answer is NO. Sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk are not interchangeable! They are two very different products that provide a very different function in a recipe. They cannot be substituted for each other without ruining the recipe. The difference between evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk boils down to add sugar — lots of added sugar. Both products originate from fresh milk. Evaporated milk goes through a cooking/vacuum process that removes or evaporates 60% of the water. It can be reconstituted to make whole milk when diluted with an equal amount of water. Evaporated milk, which has a naturally sweet and nutty taste, has the consistency of light cream and a tint that ranges from ivory to pale amber. Evaporated milk isn’t hard to make at home. You simply simmer the milk for around 25 minutes, reducing it down to a super creamy liquid.
Sidebar: Evaporated milk was invented in 1885 as a way to preserve milk for trans-Atlantic voyages. In the early 1900’s, evaporated milk was used more than fresh because it was more shelf-stable and posed less of a health risk. Interestingly, the process of making it hasn’t changed.
Sweetened condensed milk has 50% of its water removed, and then a lot of sugar is added (almost a 50/50 ratio). The result is a thick, gooey, and intensely sweet product. It is light cream or ‘off white’ in color, but over time becomes darker and more yellow. Sweetened condensed milk (also called condensed milk) is evaporated milk with added sugar. (Unsweetened condensed milk is a redundant term – without the sugar, it’s simply evaporated milk.)
It’s easy to make your own condensed milk from a can of evaporated milk. Just add 1½ cups of sugar to a 12-oz can and cook until sugar dissolves and milk thickens. Sweetened condensed milk, however, cannot be turned into evaporated milk. It’s the putting toothpaste back in the tube thing!
Sweetened condensed milk is primarily used in dessert recipes. As the sugar has already been boiled down into syrup, it reduces crystallization problems, ensuring a smooth and creamy texture. This gives bar cookies their characteristically gooey consistency. When beaten with an acid, such as lemon juice, condensed milk develops the consistency of soft cream cheese, used for making cheesecakes and pies (like my Easy Key Lime Pie and Strawberry Lemonade Pie).
From a nutrition standpoint, condensed milk is far from healthy, packing nearly 1,000 calories and over 150 grams of sugar per cup. On a brighter note, all this added sugar lengthens pantry shelf life. Condensed milk tends to last in the pantry longer than other canned milks. When properly stored, it lasts for years before going bad.
Evaporated milk serves a couple of purposes. For starters, it can be reconstituted with water and used to replace fresh milk in recipes. The absence of water means the intense milky flavor is a superb substitute for heavy cream — it’s a straightforward 1-1 swap. The creamy richness of evaporated milk makes it a popular ingredient for recipes like fudge and pie. It marries beautifully with melted cheese to create a smooth and luscious sauce for mac & cheese and queso dips. In bread, the proteins in evaporated milk form structure during baking for thick and hearty slices. Lastly, it is often the liquid in recipes like in creamy soups or pumpkin pie. It’s also used as the secret ingredient in the batter for fried chicken.
To recap, the difference between evaporated and sweetened condensed milk is added sugar. Evaporated milk is fresh milk with more than half of the water removed (evaporated) and is typically used as a liquid in a recipe. That is what it does for pumpkin pie. Sweetened condensed milk is evaporated milk that contains nearly 50% sugar. It’s intensely sweet and ooey-gooey. It’s primarily used in desserts as the sugar component. That’s why it’s a key ingredient in Key Lime Pie. Both evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk can be made at home (if you have time on your hands!). Bottom line, even though they are both milk products with similar-looking cans and are shelved next to each other in the store, evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk are two different products and are not interchangeable. Happy Cooking!