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Oct 28, 2013
09:21 AM
Small Dishes

Cooking with Canned Milk

Cooking with Canned Milk


Canned milk may not be a necessity as it once was, but it is still used to make dulce de leche and tres leches cake.

In the twenty-first century why would anyone still be using canned milk? It’s not about necessity as it once was before the advent of modern refrigeration. Nor is about economy:  Ounce for ounce, sweetened condensed and evaporated milk costs more than twice as much as fresh milk. Truth be told, processing makes them advantageous for cooking. Normally, I’m a disciple of the belief that food less processed is better, but after all, isn’t cooking a form of processing?

The inspiration for canned milk came to Gail Borden in 1853. At that time, to enjoy milk one needed to be within close proximity of a cow, and even then, the shelf life of fresh milk was but a few hours. After much unsuccessful experimentation, he recalled a vacuum pan he had observed the Shakers use to condense fruit juice. Copying this technique allowed him to finally cook milk without curdling or scorching it so it could be canned and sold under his Eagle Brand. Added sugar was necessary for palatable flavor. During the Civil War that soon followed, the U.S. government ordered tons of the stuff as a field ration. After the war, it enjoyed enormous favor in the South where warm weather had made most dairy products a luxury for most.

By the end of the century, Borden had several competitors, including the Pacific Coast Condensed Milk Company in Kent, Washington. It later became the Carnation Milk Products Company

No one had much success at canning milk without sweetening until John Baptist Meyenberg. A Swiss immigrant, he founded the Helvetia Milk Condensing Company (Pet Milk) and began to market the first unsweetened condensed milk renamed “evaporated milk” in 1892. Evaporated milk makers came up with the concept of homogenization where fat was mixed throughout the milk rather than floating on top.

Obviously as a milk substitute—diluted with an equal part of water—canned milk left something to be desired. Not surprisingly, its sales plummeted with the birth of the refrigerator and the subsequent electrification of rural America.

However, inventive cooks found and continue to find imaginative new uses for these artifacts. In the southern states, sweetened condensed milk is the principle ingredient in iconic lemon icebox pie. As novel as the new refrigerator that made it possible, this new treat skyrocketed in popularity in the early twentieth century. Uncooked, it was easy to make—easier yet with a graham cracker crust instead of conventional baked pie pastry. With one ingredient substitution in Florida, it became Key lime pie, one of the most popular desserts on restaurant menus today. In New Orleans, chocolate and other flavored snowballs—the local version of the snow cone—are often drizzled with sweetened condensed milk straight from the can. 

Condensed milk is wildly accepted around the globe. In Southeast Asia it’s spread like jam on toast. In the Caribbean it’s combined with stout and spices to make Guinness Punch. In India it’s found in a variety of confections.

Probably best known of all is dulce de leche. Some clever person in Latin America somehow figured out that baking an unopened can of sweetened condensed milk transforms it into an incredibly rich and creamy caramel. In Britain and Ireland they combine the cooked and caramelized milk with bananas and whipped cream to make banoffee pie. In Poland the can of milk is boiled rather than baked with the result called kajmak and used to frost cakes and cookies. Dulce de leche has become so well-liked worldwide that Nestlé now cans it ready made.

Evaporated milk is often substituted for cream or half and half in cooking. Like cream it adds richness, plus has its own unique flavor—a slight sweetness and caramel taste. It also has a darker color. Most importantly, unlike cream, it won’t curdle with excessive heat. For many, it is an essential ingredient to make pumpkin pie or the only way to make white sauce.

The ultimate canned milk dessert has to be tres leches cake, traditionally made with both sweetened condensed and evaporated milk as well as fresh milk and sometimes whipped cream.

RECIPE: Tres Leches Cake


9 eggs, separated
1 cup granulated sugar
1 tbsp vanilla extract
2 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp salt


1 14 oz. can sweetened condensed milk
1 12 oz. can evaporated milk
1 cup whole milk
1 tbsp vanilla extract
Rum to taste (optional)


1 envelope (.25 ounces) unflavored gelatin
2 cups heavy cream
1/4 cup confectioners’ sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract


An assortment of peeled and sliced fruit such as papayas, mangos, bananas, kiwi, oranges, and berries.


Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Butter a 9 x 13-inch pan; line the bottom with a piece of parchment paper and butter the paper.

Put the egg whites into the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the whisk attachment. Beat the egg whites at medium-high speed for 4 to 5 minutes, or until they hold soft peaks. Slowly add the sugar and continue beating until the sugar is absorbed and the egg whites form stiff peaks. With a spatula, transfer the beaten egg whites to a large mixing bowl.

Rinse and dry the mixer bowl and its whisk. Put the egg yolks into the mixer bowl and beat at medium-high speed for about 5 to 6 minutes, or until the egg yolks become pale yellow and thick. Beat in the vanilla.

Pour the beaten egg yolks over the beaten egg whites. Use a spatula to gently fold the two together. Sift the flour and salt over the combined egg mixture. Use a spatula to fold in the dry ingredients. (The ingredients should be thoroughly incorporated but be careful not to deflate the mixture.)

Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan. Bake in the middle of the preheated 350-oven for about 25 minutes, or until a cake tester comes out clean. Remove the cake from the oven to a rack and let it cool completely.

Turn the cake out on to baking sheet. Remove the parchment paper and invert the cake on to a platter or another baking sheet. Use a fork to poke holes all over the top of the cake.

In a mixing bowl, whisk together the sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk, whole milk, vanilla and rum if used. Pour the sauce over the cake.

In a small dish that can go in the microwave, mix the gelatin in 3 tablespoons of cold water. Let the mixture stand for 5 minutes to soften. Place the softened gelatin in microwave for 15 seconds at high power (until liquefied). Cool slightly while whipping the cream.

Using the electric mixer, whip the heavy cream with the confectioners’ sugar on medium-high speed until it holds soft peaks. Continue to beat the cream while slowly adding the liquid gelatin in a steady stream. Add the vanilla and continue to beat until stiff. 

Spread the whipped cream topping over the cake and refrigerate until serving time. Decorate with fruit right before serving.

Serves ten to twelve.

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About This Blog

Dan CurdI found my interest in writing by accident. My training and first job was as a graphic designer. Unemployed, the only employment I could find in advertising at that time was as a copywriter. Somehow, I convinced Richard Newman & Associates to hire me. Later I learned they were desperate. Madison has been my home off and on since 1957 (nonstop for the past 31 years). I write about food, which I love. – Dan Curd

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