Last month I spied a sweetened condense milk recipe embedded in a Food & Wine magazine recipe for lemon meringue pie. It was a chef recipe and I decided to give it a try. It was simply whole (full fat) milk and sugar with a touch of vanilla plus a lot of time — about 2 hours of slow cooking on the stove. I wondered if it would be worth the trouble. Would it make my Vietnamese coffee sing brilliantly? Since I mostly drink soy milk, I ‘borrowed’ some of my husband’s Whole Foods organic milk and made a batch while we read the Sunday New York Times.
The F&W recipe called for less sugar than my prior attempt at DIY sweetened condensed milk. This time around the flavor was more nuanced. I tasted the natural milk sugar and it wasn’t overly sweet, but it was a little thinner than my favorite store bought brands: Longevity (Old Man) and Eagle Brand. The next day I made Viet coffee with homemade sweetened condensed milk and it was elegant but not as intensely sweet as usual. I wondered what would happen if I started using different kinds of milk, which is how I have five jars of condensed milk in my fridge! Below are my trials and notes, followed by a recipe for you to make your own.
Sweetened condensed milk made from whole milk tastes good with good milk. Duh, right? I used regular Whole Foods organic milk but recalled lesson learned from a raw milk story that I wrote for the San Jose Mercury News years ago. For that piece, I made Mexican cajeta using local, Jersey cow milk that was super-duper rich. The flavor was excellent and the texture thick.
My 2016 whole milk version of SCM was a little thin but it tasted delicious. One of my tests when making SCM was coating spatula with the milk and drawing a finger through the milk. If the line held, the milk was done. After 2 hours of cooking that’s what I got!
In an attempt to cut down on the cooking time, I tried canned evaporated milk. Holy cow – the cooking time went down to 30 minutes because evaporated milk is processed to a concentrated form and can tolerate boiling. The color was gorgeous and the caramel aroma was amazing. The pot got a little dirty but soaking in hot water made clean up a snap. My only complaint was the evaporated milk flavor that lingered in the back of my throat. The texture was creamy but with coffee, there was flavor finish that I didn’t care for.
When I was on a fellowship in Hong Kong years ago, I was served a lot of milk tea with evaporated milk and never totally got used to it. It seemed to amplify the tannins in the tea. That may be in my taste memory because I detect a slight bit of it in coffee. Evaporated milk sure makes a pleasing looking SCM. Try it if the slightly-off flavor does not bother you.
What about coconut milk for a vegan sweetened condensed milk? I went back to Whole Foods and tried its organic coconut milk, which had a little guar gum as an emulsifier. It boiled and condense down easily in about half an hour. The color, however, was unattractively grey. The fragrance and flavor, though, were alluring. I liked it, even if there was a thin layer of coconut oil in my coffee in the morning. Use coconut oil if you want a tropical, vegan sweetened condensed milk.
After trial three with coconut milk, I returned to cow’s milk. Actually, I tried half and half since it was fattier. Would cooking time be reduced by lots? It turns out, by about 40 percent. But there was a slight grainy texture, which showed up as unattractive teeny tiny white bits in my morning cup of coffee. I could have cooked it more slowly but then why not use whole milk?
Then I tried adding an emulsifier. I chose xanthan since many people may have it around or have access to it for gluten-free cooking. I use it to make (vegan) eggless mayonnaise recipes in the Banh Mi Handbook. I used half and half with the xanthan and it cooked up in about 25 minutes to a thick, pudding-like texture. The milk sugars never caramelized and there was a funny plastic flavor. No Bueno. Maybe 1/8 to 1/4 teaspoon of guar gum would be better.
So what should you do? I’d stick with whole milk, evaporated milk, or coconut milk. The result is bright and fresh in flavor. It’s not as intense as the commercial product, which I still love for coffee. With all the condensed milk in the fridge, I taken to drizzling it on toast and avocado, as well as making avocado shakes (sinh to bo). I also just eat it by the spoonful. It keeps well so it’s not like it will go bad quickly. Enjoy.
Sweetened Condensed Milk Recipe
Yield: about 1 cup (240 ml)
- 2 cups (480 ml) whole milk, 12-ounce can evaporated milk, or 14-ounce can coconut milk
- 2/3 to 3/4 cup (150–180 ml) sugar
- Pinch of salt
- 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)
- Put the milk, sugar, and salt in a small saucepan. Set over medium heat and whisk constantly until the mixture begins to simmer. If using whole milk, lower the heat to low or medium-low to very slowly cook for about 2 hours. Avoid bubbling of you may get little tiny solids in the milk. (If using evaporated or coconut milk, the mixture may vigorously simmer for about 30 minutes to achieve a thickened state. These kinds of milk can usually bubble away without problems.)
- Stir occasionally until thickened (do the spoon test) and reduced to about 1 cup (240 ml). Slide off heat, stir in the vanilla (if using), then let cool completely before using. Transfer to jar and store for up to 2 months.
Related post: Avocado shake and sweetened condensed milk recipe