Until recently I was constantly confusing evaporated and condensed milk, especially at the grocery store when trying to remember which one a recipe called for. It didn't help that the cans look nearly identical. The differences are small, but they can have a big impact on your recipe.
Do you know the difference between condensed and evaporated milk?
The Difference Between Condensed and Evaporated Milk
Both condensed milk and evaporated milk are forms of concentrated milk in which approximately 60 percent of the water content has been removed. The major difference that sets these two canned milk products apart is sugar content; sweetened condensed milk, as the name implies, is always sweetened, while evaporated milk is unsweetened.
More About Condensed Milk
Condensed milk is referred to as both condensed milk and sweetened condensed milk; the names are synonymous. This shelf-stable product is a form of concentrated milk in which about 60 percent of the water content has been removed, after which sugar is added before canning. Condensed milk contains 40 to 45 percent sugar. It's rich and thick, with a caramel color and a super-sweet flavor.
You won't see any products labeled as unsweetened condensed milk, since that's essentially evaporated milk.
Condensed milk can be found in kitchens around the world, from the U.S. to Europe to Latin America to Asia. Sweetened condensed milk is commonly used in baked goods and desserts — like pie, pudding, ice cream — and as a sweetener in coffee and tea.
Recipes with Condensed Milk
More About Evaporated Milk
Similar to condensed milk, and as the name implies, evaporated milk is also made by heating milk until about 60 percent of its water content has evaporated. It is then homogenized, packaged, and sterilized. The result is a dense, creamy, ultra-concentrated milk that can be canned and stored for several months. The high heat used in processing also adds a slightly caramelized flavor and darker color than regular milk.
There are skim, low-fat, and whole milk varieties of evaporated milk.
Evaporated milk is used in dishes that seek a creamy texture, but not necessarily any added sweetness. It's used in both sweet and savory recipes.
Recipes with Evaporated Milk
Substituting One for the Other
Even though these are both shelf-stable, concentrated forms of milk and have some similarities, evaporated and condensed milk cannot be used interchangeably. Substituting one product for the other would either result in a very bland dish (if evaporated milk is used in place of condensed milk) or a dish that's way too sweet (if condensed milk is used in place of evaporated milk).
The sugar in condensed milk becomes concentrated, adding a caramelized flavor during processing, so it's not quite the same as combining evaporated milk with sugar. We recommend sticking to what the recipe calls for.
This post has been updated - first published September 2010.
(Image credits: Kelli Foster)