14 Mistakes Everyone Makes When Cooking With Condensed Milk

Admittedly, there's a significant portion of every can of condensed milk that's fated never to be cooked with, instead being fast-tracked to our bellies by the spoonful. And while suggesting snack-by-spoon is wrong would be sacrilege (we would never), condensed milk is way more versatile than it gets credit for.

For the uninitiated, condensed milk is a can of pure, unadulterated joy. It's the perfect result that occurs when raw milk is evaporated and then sweetened. Having predated refrigeration, it's lauded for its long shelf-life and heavenly creaminess.

But what if we've been doing it wrong? From strictly relegating it to the dessert category and substituting it with lesser products to not knowing how to make a top-tier lactose-free alternative for the intolerant among us, when it comes to condensed milk, ignorance isn't bliss. Here are some of the worst mistakes everyone makes when cooking with condensed milk and how to do better.

You're only putting condensed milk in sweet dishes

Nobody can deny condensed milk spiked with sweetness is quite the ambrosial affair, but if you're only using it in desserts, you've missed a trick – condensed milk can make savory dishes sing. In fact, condensed milk is the secret to deliciously caramelized pork, nudging the dish into 'bliss point' territory, the irresistible blend of sweetness, creaminess, and saltiness we're basically biologically programmed to drool over.

Traditionally slow-cooked in whole milk, it's the little-bit-sweet-little-bit-savory element of carnitas that makes them so moreish. Swap out the whole milk for the condensed variety, and the experience goes transcendental. Cooked slowly over a low heat, the sweetened condensed milk begins to brown in what's known as the Maillard reaction, coating the pork in a delightfully sticky, caramelized exterior that'll make you want to snaffle those carnitas straight out of the pot. (You should probably give them a second to cool first, though.)

You're substituting condensed milk for coconut cream

When it comes down to crunch time but the pantry's bare, subbing just any old thing for condensed milk isn't going to cut the mustard (or perhaps we should say the key lime pie). In the absence of condensed milk, most reflexively reach for the coconut cream, and while this isn't wrong, it isn't always the best substitute.

Coconut cream does great texturally, mimicking the thick creaminess of condensed milk with ease, but that strong coconutty flavor is near impossible to mask. Coconut's welcome in curries and cheesecakes, but if the delicate balance of flavors you worked so hard to create is suddenly steamrolled by coconut, you'll likely be left feeling hard done by.

The best way to substitute sweetened condensed milk is by making it yourself. And before you roll your eyes, DIY-ing condensed milk is actually really easy — all you need is 2 cups of your choice of milk and ¾ cup of sugar. Pop both in a pot and simmer for 45 minutes or until the milk and sugar have reduced into the thick, syrupy goodness we know and love. Out of milk but got some milk powder kicking around in the back of the cupboard? Combine a cup with sugar, margarine, and boiling water to make that magic happen.

You didn't know there was a lactose-free alternative

Learning you're lactose intolerant can spark a wave of mourning as all your most beloved dairy products flash before your eyes. The fact you can't stress-eat your way to the bottom of a pint of your favorite ice cream just adds insult to injury. Made from reduced milk, condensed milk definitely isn't suitable for the lactose-free among us, but you don't have to miss out entirely. Here's what you can substitute for condensed milk if you're lactose-free.

A dairy-free version of condensed milk can be DIY-ed out soy, oat, macadamia, or whatever your favorite plant-based milk alternative is. Simply pour 2 ½ to 3 cups of dairy-free milk into a pot, stirring and simmering until you're left with 1 cup of liquid. Finish it off by sweetening it to taste, stirring in ⅔ to ¾ cup of white sugar.

You're using evaporated and condensed milk interchangeably

Condensed milk by any other name actually isn't as sweet  evaporated milk and condensed milk aren't the same thing, and it's a mistake to swap them in and out of recipes. Both start off in the world as milk, but condensed milk has sugar added to it, resulting in that creamy saccharine consistency that has us lunging at it with a spoon. Evaporated milk, on the other hand, is texturally thinner, and while it has its own strengths, like resistance to curdling, it isn't suitable as a substitute in every recipe, so it's vital to know when to use evaporated vs. condensed milk.

As a general rule, if a recipe calls for condensed milk, use condensed milk, but if you're down to the wire and all you have is evaporated milk, sweeten it first. Adding sugar will level up the evaporated milk's flavor and textural profiles, making it a better match than evaporated milk straight from the can.

You've never fermented condensed milk

Fermentation isn't just for kimchi and kombucha — it's just as legitimate a way to cook with sweetened condensed milk. Fermentation occurs when bacteria breaks down food, making it more digestible and producing carbon dioxide as a byproduct, which gives the food a fizzy quality.

In Vietnam, condensed milk is fermented and combined with fresh milk and yogurt to create a special Vietnamese yogurt known as sữa chua or da ua. Easy to make, the recipe demands time rather than any major technical skill, especially if you've got a yogurt maker on hand. Heat whole milk, sweetened condensed milk, and regular yogurt until lukewarm, then pour into a yogurt maker and heat at 100 F, testing for acidity. Depending on your taste, it should take about eight to nine hours. This special fermented yogurt makes a great snack or dessert, or you can pile it on top of your favorite breakfast cereal.

You're adding way too much to mainstream recipes

You're convinced that condensed milk has a place in savory recipes, and we applaud you, but heavy-handedness with that can isn't guaranteed to work out. Take mac and cheese; condensed milk has the potential to elevate it (think silky, cheesy goodness), but if you're ending up with a sweet mess, it's time to dial it back. In this case, less really is more. The key here is to resist the urge to take shortcuts. Condensed milk is the cherry on top, not a replacement for cheese sauce – mac and cheese is the ultimate comfort food, but get lazy in the prep, and you're cutting your own lunch.

First, make a Mornay. Mornay sauce is a simple, classic French sauce every cook should know, especially one who aspires to have loved ones clambering over each other for second helpings of mac and cheese. This indulgent (read: gloriously cheesy) derivative of béchamel sauce consists of thickening up warm milk with a butter-flour roux, then seasoning. Next, whisk in an egg yolk and stir in a generous helping of sharp-grated cheddar cheese. Finish up by adding a few tablespoons of sweetened condensed milk, then coat your mac like there's no tomorrow.

You're using condensed milk that should be in the trash

Condensed milk is a bastion of hardiness. Unopened and stored properly, it can last for years, but this robust pantry staple does have an Achilles heel: dents. However, there are dents, and then there are dents, if you catch our drift. Food from cans with minor cosmetic dents should be fine, but if your can looks like it's been partially crushed and then hurled at a wall, step away from the can. Why? Food waste is the worst, but there's a reason why you might want to think twice before eating from a dented can — it's a major red flag for food safety. According to Can It Go Bad?, badly damaged cans no longer have a protective seal against the bacteria of the outside world, so once tarnished, it's a free-for-all, but not in a good way. Trust us: You don't want your condensed milk with a side of Clostridium botulinum because it might just be the last condensed milk you ever indulge in.

Other telltale signs your condensed milk should be relegated to the trash to rest in peace include mold, lumps, a dark yellow color (rather than a pale creamy tone), and a sour smell. Likewise, if it's become so thick you can't pour it, it's got to go.

You're shelling out for dulce de leche when you could be whipping it up yourself

Dulce de leche, the saucy caramel that stars in South American fare like Argentinian sandwich cookies called alfajores, satisfying puff pastry squares, and as a dipping sauce for churros, makes for one helluva sweet treat. Flying south to get your paws on a jar of the good stuff is probably out of the question (although we'd applaud you if you went for it), but there's another option to consider before committing to dropping some serious coin on a bougie import or settling for a cheap alternative: DIY.

Let it be known  you can boil a can of sweetened condensed milk to make cheater caramel sauce. Not only is this a stunning hack, but it requires barely any effort to pull off, making it the laziest shortcut you never knew you needed. Simply whip the label off the can, submerge it in a pot, throw on a lid, and simmer for 2 to 3 hours. Once it's done, use tongs to transfer the can to an ice bath, crack the lid, then plunge your spoon into it (we won't judge).

You've never combined condensed milk with coffee

If you've never known the beautiful fusion of coffee and condensed milk (and even if you have), treat your sweet tooth with Vietnamese iced coffee. Also known as cà phê sữa đá, this slow-drip Vietnamese coffee is served over crushed ice combined with – you guessed it – sweetened condensed milk. If you're going to dip into this at home, you've got two options: Go full bougie or just give your regular coffee a bit of an exotic lift. For the former, you're going to need to source yourself some Vietnamese coffee or French roast and a Vietnamese brand of condensed milk like Longevity and add a phin Vietnamese coffee filter to your cart.

Coffee isn't the only caffeinated beverage condensed milk goes well with either. It makes a refreshing Thai Tea recipe a summer afternoon incarnate. Add a dash to a Long Thailand Iced Tea recipe, and it'll go down very easily indeed.

You've never doused your salad in it

If you can't imagine a world where condensed milk has a place in salad, prepare to have your mind blown. With just a handful of ingredients and a can of condensed milk, you can create a supreme salad dressing, which is great news because if condensed milk is on a salad, then surely it's earned health food status.

The recipe, which allegedly arose in New Zealand during wartime when eggs were scarce, was made an official part of New Zealand culinary history when it appeared in the Edmonds Cookery Book, a collection of "economical everyday recipes and cooking hints." Known as 'traditional Kiwi salad dressing' or 'easy condensed milk mayo,' the recipe calls for ½ a can of condensed milk, ½ tablespoon of salt, ½ cup of malt vinegar, and a teaspoon of dry mustard. Combine then shake over chopped iceberg lettuce, grated carrot, chopped spring onion, sliced cucumber, wedges of tomatoes and a chopped hard-boiled egg, or your favorite salad.

You don't know half the epic flavor combinations

Condensed milk is great eaten by the spoonful, but it's got the potential to be so much more. We expect to see condensed milk in the ingredient lineup for dairy-free fudge, pumpkin pie, and chewy caramel, but a quick gander into cultural recipe books the world over reveals a whole new realm of appetizing possibilities.

Pair sweetened condensed milk with jelly cubes, coconut flesh and milk, and pandan or screwpine plant for a Filipino take on a fruit salad (known locally as buko pandan) that's as refreshing for the eyes as it is for the palette in its white and green hues. Flex your baking skills with Mexico's Impossible Cake that deliciously defies the logic of baking, make itty bitty treats from Brazil with this chocolate-cinnamon brigadeiro recipe, or serve up a whimsical afternoon tea with this soft pull-apart milk bread recipe from Japan.

You've thrown a can into your hiking backpack

According to Healthline, condensed milk is energy-dense, and in theory, this makes it great hiker fuel, but unless you're committed to downing a can in one on your own (which we wouldn't recommend), or you have hiking buddies who'll fiend it, throwing a can into your backpack isn't the most practical way of getting your fix on the trail. While condensed milk quickly rose to popularity as a World War ration due to its near zombie apocalypse-worthy shelf life, once opened, it needs to be stored in the fridge, which we're pretty sure you aren't going to want to lug around in your backpack.

The solution? Copycat Mounds bars you prepared earlier. Yes, not only do you get the trail cred of having made your own snacks, but you get to have your condensed milk and eat it, too, without risking having to hike with food poisoning (which I'm sure we can all agree isn't a vibe). As for how to go about this, Mashed recipe developer Susan Olayinka has done the heavy lifting for you with a simple recipe for whipping sweetened condensed milk, desiccated coconut, and dark chocolate into a homemade Mounds bar that'll turn your fellow hikers green with envy.

You haven't used it to elevate fruit

Fruit, with its fiber, a dash of sweetness, and naturally environmentally-friendly brightly-colored packaging, is as perfect for a snack as it is for dessert, but sometimes your taste buds are craving a change up, and when that mood hits, make sure you've got a can of condensed milk on hand. In 2013, the Tasting Table Test Kitchen — inspired by zesty Creamsicle — created a creamy roasted cantaloupe popsicle recipe, combining cantaloupe with condensed milk in a culinary mic drop that's stood the test of time.

How to pull off this wizardry? Roast one large cantaloupe at 400 F for 20 to 25 minutes. Once cool, purée in a blender, then stir in ¾ cup of sweetened condensed milk, ½ cup of whole milk, and ¼ cup of fresh lemon juice before dividing up into a 10-pop mold and freezing until solid. The perfect summer cool-down? We think so.

You've never whipped it

In 2020, whipped lemonade took over our feeds when TikTok user @goldenxclouds, who doesn't care for coffee, combined pink lemonade Kool-Aid with heavy whipping cream in a response to the pillowy caffeinated peaks of the Dalgona coffee. The post prompted a wave of decadent variations and somewhere along the way condensed milk got its foot in the door, and we're so glad that it did.

Mashed recipe developer, Susan Olayinka, created a recipe that allows us to live our full whipped lemonade fantasy. Recreate it with the juice of three lemons (Olayinka emphasizes fresh lemon juice over bottled is essential here), 2 cups of heavy cream and ½ cup of condensed milk whipped up in a blender with 2 cups of ice cubes for 15 seconds. Next, pour that sweet, tangy delight into a fancy glass, topping it with whipped cream, and sip away.