Is there anyone out there who has never eaten sweetened condensed milk straight from the can, and relished the sugary goodness that makes just about every dessert even better? I know that many of my friends have similar fond associations with the sticky sweet stuff, so surely there’s more folks that can relate. I know we’re not just a bunch of sugar-addict can-licking weirdos.
I have fond memories of my mom popping open a can of it to pour as a topping on a gooey coffee cake, as a layer of a rich and chewy cookie bar, or to whip into a dip for a fruit platter at a family gathering. I’d grab the mostly-empty can and a spoon and scrape out the remaining sticky ambrosia. It was always such a treat.
With my recent batches of no-churn homemade ice cream using whipping cream and sweetened condensed milk as the base, I made an alarming discovery. The sweetened condensed milk I grew up loving might not be the same sweetened condensed milk offered to us today on the grocery shelves.
The stuff from the olden days was made with pure sugar and milk. I died a little inside when I read the ingredients list on the can I had and saw that modern-day sweetened condensed milk was made with high fructose corn syrup rather than real sugar. What?
Normally very aware of ingredients, I’ve done my best to eliminate high fructose corn syrup from our diets, as well as processed foods and ingredients that are hard to spell. One rule I like to follow in my label-reading for food selection is this: Would my great-grandmother know what these ingredients are? If the answer is no, the item goes back on the shelf.
I can’t believe the high fructose corn syrup snuck its way into the sweetened condensed milk. Surely that was a fluke?
The thought of a life without sweetened condensed milk almost made my heart hurt. It’s been an integral part of dessert-making for over 150 years. How do you make key lime pie without it? It’s necessary for my favorite fudge recipe. What about tres leches cake? I don’t want to eat a dos leches cake. I mean, I would, but it would be dry. How about Thai iced tea? Are cookie bars even worth the effort if there’s not a creamy layer of sweetness holding everything together? I don’t even make or eat these things often, but what happens when I want to?
It was looking bleak, and that was before I thought about my much-loved no-churn ice cream recipe.
In 1856, an inventor named Gail Borden introduced his patented sweetened condensed milk to America. He was quite an interesting fellow who assisted in plotting the cities of Houston and Galveston, and when he wasn’t working as a land surveyor or publishing his newspaper, he was at the helm of culinary inventions.
For his sweetened condensed milk, he used vacuum pressure, heat and sugar and produced a dairy product that is virtually indestructible. Sweetened condensed milk can do the work of milk, sugar and eggs, and being canned, it has a much longer shelf life than any of those items separately. It doesn’t curdle with acid (think “key lime pie”), and they sugar in it doesn’t crystallize, so it’s fudge’s best friend.
I decided to make my own sweetened condensed milk. I had an unopened gallon of almond milk and pure cane sugar. In a saucepan, I brought to a simmer three cups of the almond milk with one cup of sugar. Medium-low to keep at a simmer, and let it cook down about halfway, resisting the urge to stir it. It turned out delicious. Thick and rich, it could keep in the fridge for about six months.
If almond milk was the right consistency and flavor (although a little almondy), how perfect would regular whole milk, or even coconut milk be? My heart was smiling at the thought of keeping sweetened condensed milk in my kitchen. I used the homemade sweetened condensed almond milk in no-churn vanilla cherry ice cream, and then the next day in a rich chocolate no-churn ice cream.
Chocolate ice cream was so good… I used cacao powder.
And then took it up another level making more chocolate with dried cherries...
While it’s not the same as popping open the can and drizzling the gooey sweet stuff, I know what’s in it and can feel a better about that spoonful I might or might not eat while making dessert…
How to Make Homemade Sweetened Condensed Milk
(You can use the milk of your choice – dairy or not – and still have a delicious sweetened condensed milk to use in your favorite recipes)
3 cups milk of your choice (full fat, low fat, nut, coconut)
1 cup white pure cane sugar
- Put the milk and sugar in a small, heavy-bottomed saucepan.
- On low heat, stir until sugar is dissolved.
- Once all the sugar is dissolved, bring it to a simmer on medium-low heat – but don’t stir once it simmers or else it might crystallize!
- Simmer gently for about 40-45 minutes, or until it’s turned a darker color and has boiled down about half. It will be noticeably thicker.
- Remove from heat. Let cool completely before putting in container with airtight lid. It will thicken quite a bit in the fridge – it will store in fridge for 6 months.