Ingredient Intelligence

The $2 Pantry Ingredient That Can Transform Any Fruit into Dessert

published Jun 16, 2020
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Credit: Kelli Foster

There’s nothing quite like sweetened condensed milk. The unassuming can might not look very impressive, but once you open it up and taste just how rich and creamy it is, there’s no going back. No other product reaches its level of concentrated creaminess, and just a small drizzle of the stuff can transform the simplest dessert into something special. It’s the secret ingredient in countless no-bake desserts, the key element that gives Thai iced tea it’s signature sweetness, and the beloved third milk in tres leches cake. To say that it’s a game-changing ingredient would be an understatement.

Recently I’ve grown to love sweetened condensed milk as not only a vital component in several of my favorite desserts, but also as a secret ingredient I bring out to transform fresh fruit into a quick summer dessert. My new move is to drizzle it over fresh fruit — especially strawberries, kiwis, and melon. The sweet, milky syrup complements just about any fruit, and it’s one of my favorite summer treats. It’s my most cherished pantry ingredient, and I could happily eat it right out of the can.

Credit: Kelli Foster

The Difference Between Sweetened Condensed Milk and Evaporated Milk

Evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk both come in small cans that look very similar, so it’s easy to mix them up. Both are concentrated milk products with about 60 percent of their water content removed, but sweetened condensed milk is (you guessed it) sweetened and much thicker. Evaporated milk looks and tastes like any other milk, and you can use it in recipes that call for milk without any issue. But sweetened condensed milk is a completely different product. It’s thick, syrupy, and sweet. Both products can be found in the baking section of most well-stocked grocery stores usually next to each other, so just make sure to read the label to make sure you’re grabbing the right one.

Stock up: Four-Pack Sweetened Condensed Milk, $17.95 on Amazon

Credit: Joe Lingeman

My Favorite Ways to Use Sweetened Condensed Milk

  • Turn it into a one-ingredient caramel sauce. One of the most magical things you can do with a can of sweetened condensed milk is turn it into caramel. All you have to do is place the unopened can in a pot of boiling water and let it cook for about an hour, then remove it with tongs and let it cool before opening. The sweetened condensed milk transforms into a thick caramel that’s perfect for serving over ice cream.
  • Add it to your morning coffee or tea. Sweetened condensed milk can transform your morning cup of tea or coffee into something creamy, sweet, and decadent. It’s one of the secrets to making great Thai iced tea, and it’s the most important ingredient for making Starbucks-style sweet cream at home.
  • Make tres leches cake. Tres leches cake is made with three different types of milk (hence the name). Sweetened condensed milk is often used to provide sweeteness and richness, and to keep the cake moist.
  • Drizzle it on top of fresh fruit. Drizzling sweetened condensed milk over the top of a bowl of fresh fruit is the easiest way to transform it into a dessert. Try it over sliced strawberries, mango, kiwi, or raspberries.
  • Make rolled ice cream. One of the main ingredients in rolled ice cream is sweetened condensed milk. You just combine it with heavy cream and a pinch of salt to create the base, throw in whatever add-ins you have on hand, pour it onto a sheet pan, and freeze it. Once solid, use a bench scraper to roll cylinders and serve it immediately.

There are countless ingredients clamoring for space in your kitchen. Taste Makers are the ones that actually make a dish amazing. Each month, we’re exploring one ingredient that has earned its place in our small kitchens and will make even simple food taste spectacular.

Your turn: What’s your favorite underrated ingredient in your pantry? What do you reach for when you want to elevate your cooking quickly and easily? Tell us in the comments below! We may give it the star treatment in an upcoming edition of Taste Makers.