Why It Works
- A splash of cream stabilizes the milk so it can be reduced in just 45 minutes without curdling.
- Cream adds a concentrated dose of lactose for better flavor via Maillard browning.
- Toasted sugar reduces sweetness while adding complexity.
- Stirring and scraping prevent the milk solids from over-cooking.
- Avoiding acidic ingredients will prevent the milk from curdling.
Some things are so much more than the sum of their parts. Take sweetened condensed milk. On the surface, it's simply fresh milk, cooked to remove about 60% of its water content and sweetened with enough sugar to form a heavy syrup. Yet, along the way, Maillard browning creates this beautiful complexity, giving it a toasty, toffee-like character.
Let's be clear—there's nothing wrong with the stuff in a can (though Max Falkowitz has proven that not all brands are created equal). But no brand can compare to made-from-scratch sweetened condensed milk, because when you're in charge of the dairy, sugar, and heat, truly magical things will happen, especially if you opt for the mellow sweetness of toasted sugar.
Controlling those variables gives homemade sweetened condensed milk more depth of flavor and body, while also allowing for customization, as ingredients like vanilla bean, cinnamon sticks, whole spices, and fresh herbs can be infused straight into the milk. Just take care to avoid acidic ingredients that can curdle the milk.
Now, I fully understand the convenience of canned dairy, but in a world where so many of us routinely binge entire seasons of television in one sitting, let's not pretend we don't have the time. A batch of homemade sweetened condensed milk takes 45 minutes from start to finish and requires no more effort than some idle stirring. By the time I finished up Game of Thrones, I could've amassed a lifetime supply. (Besides, multitasking varnishes my guilty pleasures in a sheen of productivity.)
The ingredients are simple: 32 ounces milk, seven ounces sugar, and six ounces heavy cream, plus a pinch of salt and whatever aromatics you choose. The cream adds a major dose of lactose for more flavorful browning, but more importantly, it prevents the milk from curdling as it cooks. Thanks to the fat content in the cream, it doesn't matter whether you use whole or skim milk, so feel free to grab whatever you have on hand.
Once it comes to a boil, the dairy will deepen from bright white to ivory as the lactose browns, which is why it's important to stir and scrape all the while with a flexible spatula. But so long as you've got some entertainment at hand (be it GoT or a magazine), the time will fly.
At the end of 45 minutes, it will be foamy and thick. (If not, feel free to turn up the heat; heavier gauges of cookware and weak burner outputs can slow things down.)
If you've got a digital scale, the recipe is even easier because you can use it to monitor the reduction—when the pot weighs 26 ounces less than when you started, it's done! That means 60% of the dairy's water content will have boiled away, reducing the mixture to exactly two cups or 19 ounces—further proof that a pint isn't a pound the world around.
Should you accidentally reduce the mixture too far, top it off with enough milk to reach two cups or 19 ounces, and hit the whole thing with an immersion blender to emulsify. (Of course, you'll need to first remove any added flavorings.) Transfer the sweetened condensed milk to a heat-safe jar. Mild aromatics, like vanilla, can be left in the jar to continue steeping, but remove spices and herbs to prevent the bitterness associated with over-extraction.
Cover and refrigerate until cool and thick, and store up to a month in the fridge. Generally speaking, you'll want to bring homemade sweetened condensed milk to room temperature before use; most recipes are based on "room-temperature" canned goods, and a massive drop in temperature can adversely thicken or curdle batters and doughs. Aside from the issue of temperature, the homemade version can be used interchangeably for store-bought.
My cookbook at Amazon includes variations for incorporating ingredients like fresh ginger, dried lavender, whole spices for masala chai, herbs, and even goat's milk. I use sweetened condensed milk, whether plain or flavored, in everything from pumpkin pie and Key lime pie to marbled brownies and tres leches cake (plus a killer soft-serve, too). You can incorporate homemade sweetened condensed milk into your own favorite recipes as well, or use it as a simple sauce for other desserts and a sweetener for coffee or tea. That is, if you can refrain from just eating it with a spoon.
How to Make Homemade Sweetened Condensed Milk
Reprinted from BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts at Amazon with permission from W. W. Norton.
32 ounces milk, any percentage will do (4 cups; 910g)
6 ounces heavy cream (3/4 cup; 170g)
7 ounces plain or toasted sugar (1 cup; 195g)
1/8 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use about half as much by volume or the same weight
Aromatics such as a vanilla bean, split lengthways, or cinnamon stick (optional)
Combine milk, cream, sugar, salt, and vanilla bean or cinnamon (if using) in a 5-quart stainless steel saucier. If you have a scale, weigh the pot and ingredients together so you can digitally track the reduction. Place over medium heat, stirring occasionally with a heat-resistant spatula, until the milk begins to simmer, about 12 minutes.
Continue simmering an additional 30 minutes, scraping continuously to prevent a milky buildup from forming around the sides. When the thickened milk syrup suddenly turns foamy, it’s almost done. Keep cooking and stirring until the foam subsides and the dairy has condensed to exactly 2 cups or 19 ounces. If using a scale, the pot will weigh 26 ounces less than when you started.
Troubleshooting: Should the dairy reduce too far, top it off with enough milk to reach 2 cups or 19 ounces, then remove aromatics and blitz with an immersion blender to emulsify.
Pour into an airtight container, seal to prevent evaporation, and refrigerate until needed, up to 1 month. To mimic the consistency of canned milk, bring to room temperature before use.
Stainless steel Dutch oven, heat-resistant spatula
The timing of this recipe may vary considerably depending on the heat output of your stove and the size, shape, and gauge of your cookware. If it takes considerably longer than 12 minutes to bring the dairy to a simmer, increase the heat to medium-high in order to reduce the dairy within the allotted time. Conversely, should the milk begin to simmer much faster, reduce the heat to medium-low to cook at a more gentle pace.
Make-Ahead and Storage
Homemade sweetened condensed milk can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to one month.
|Nutrition Facts (per serving)|
|Amount per serving|
|% Daily Value*|
|Total Fat 5g||7%|
|Saturated Fat 3g||17%|
|Total Carbohydrate 15g||6%|
|Dietary Fiber 0g||0%|
|Total Sugars 16g|
|Vitamin C 0mg||1%|
|*The % Daily Value (DV) tells you how much a nutrient in a food serving contributes to a daily diet. 2,000 calories a day is used for general nutrition advice.|