When it comes to an appreciation of canned dairy, the U.S. is a little behind the times. Latin America has been using it to moisten cakes for decades. In Taiwan (and in Taiwanese-style sweets houses all over) you can find drizzles of sweetened condensed milk over your shaved ice. Back in college, a Russian professor regaled me with stories of boiling cans of condensed milk to MacGyver up some dulce de leche for dessert (the occasional exploding can just made it all the more fun). And in Vietnam, condensed milk goes into some damn fine, very distinctive coffee. Check out the video below to see what I mean.
Sure, fresh cream and milk is great and all, but there's no denying the versatility of sweetened condensed milk,* or the guilty-pleasure-that-I'm-not-actually-guilty-about-at-all, the ecstasy of licking it straight off the spoon. And if you take a look around a grocery store or two, you'll find no shortage of brands competing for your attention.
*You may be wondering: what's the difference between sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk? Both are cooked at high heat until reduced to about 60% of their original volume, which caramelizes some of the sugars in the milk and produces some dulce de leche-like flavors. Evaporated milk is canned just like that, and has a texture not unlike cream, but sweetened condensed milk gets a big wallop of sugar to give it a very sweet flavor and thick syrup texture. The two can't be used interchangeably in recipes.
On first glance, all those cans are pretty similar. The total calories, fat calories, sodium levels, and ingredients don't stray too far from one another. But there are exceptions. Some brands use just milk and sugar; others rely on skim milk and add vegetable oil for fat. Several producers make different products for different demographics; Borden, for example, has a special variety that seems to be marketed to the Hispanic population. California-based Sun Hing, which sells the popular Longevity brand (see video above), also distributes six others. And the further you dig into the multi-ethnic, corporate hierarchical puzzle of canned dairy, the more you hear fervent testimonials from condensed milk acolytes who are absolutely convinced that one brand is better than all the others.
These are the makings of grand conspiracy theories, so it became clear to me that the world needs to know the truth. How do these cans compare? Does the same brand taste different when packaged for different demographics? And is there one sweetened condensed milk to rule them all? We tasted six brands to find out.
The short answer? There's not too much difference. On a ten point scale from "Blech" to "Yum," all the results were pretty close, ranging from average scores of 5.1 to 5.9 on overall preference. We did taste subtle differences between the milks, and though our comments weren't incredibly consistent, some trends did emerge. If you're a condensed milk connoisseur, the kind to greedily lick milk off of spoons, these differences will matter to you. If not, the small margins detailed below shouldn't get you racing off to the supermarket to buy out one particular brand.
We sampled six nationally available brands in all. A two tablespoon serving of each has 130 calories (30 of which come from fat), 22 grams of carbohydrates, and 35 to 45 milligrams of sodium.
Condensed milk obviously won't taste like fresh, but it should have milky elements to it. There should be some saltiness to balance out the sweet, which should be potent but not cloying. Caramel notes are fine, but this isn't supposed to be dulce de leche. The texture should be pleasantly creamy and a little glossy, not too sticky, tacky, or slimy—it should glide when caressed with a spoon but protest with a tiny bit of pull. Here's specifically what we were looking for:
- How sweet does the milk taste: tooth aching or more muted?
- Does the flavor have any complexity, like notes of caramel or balanced saltiness?
- Does the milk taste fresh, canned, or caramel-like?
- Is the texture creamy, sticky, or slimy?
First Tasting: Straight Up
If you want to know what a fine olive oil tastes like, you don't go making a salad with it—you want to taste it straight. In the spirit of condensed milk connoisseurship, we did the same here. Well, not quite straight—we smeared our samples on slices of untoasted Asian-style pullman bread (shokupan in Japanese), just like you find at bubble tea snack spots. The milk soaks into the bread pretty rapidly, so we also tasted it straight from unmarked containers.
Longevity Brand (5.9/10)
Longevity Brand definitely wins the award for coolest name and packaging, and it just inched into our first place spot. Several of us liked its "buttery" and "caramel" flavors, and a few tasters noticed a more pronounced saltiness and a slightly grainy texture. The sweetness was in the middle of the pack for our samples, rated 7 out of 10. If you're going to eat just one sweetened condensed milk (and use it to top ice cream, shaved ice, and other treats), let it be this one. It's most commonly found in Asian groceries, but also in supermarkets.
Borden: Eagle and Magnolia Brands (5.8/10)
We tried two versions of Borden (owned by Smucker's) condensed milk. Eagle Brand is adorned with a cow and proclaims itself "America's Most Trusted." Magnolia is pictured with a flan, features more prominent Spanish text, and seems geared more toward the Hispanic market. Label differences aside, they taste pretty similar. They tied for second place, with a slight sweetness edge to Magnolia (7/10 vs. 6.7/10). This is the most common brand I've seen in mainstream groceries, and it's gratifying to know the manufacturer isn't playing favorites with their different products. The general consensus on both is a fairly rich texture (comparisons to custard were made) and a more buttery flavor than average. Many found the flavor well balanced; some found it too sweet.
Nestle Carnation (5.6/10)
This brand was ranked the sweetest (7.2/10), and a few tasters praised its balanced and slightly caramel qualities, but it was also criticized as tasting "processed," "thin," and "like I'm not supposed to be eating this." Those who didn't write unapologetically negative things about it found it fairly standard and unremarkable.
Parrot Brand (5.3/10)
Parrot, which like Longevity is distributed by California-based Sun Hing Foods, was the only milk we tasted with different ingredients. While the others only list milk and sugar, Parrot specifies "Nonfat milk, sugar, partially hydrogenated soybean oil, vitamin A palmitate, and riboflavin." It turns out extra ingredients and an injection of vegetable fat don't do anything for flavor. Some of us were fans, but most of us found the flavor "bland" and "processed." That gives our lowest sweetness score (6.9/10) some context.
Santini Brand (5.1/10)
Santini is the brand sold by Whole Foods (at least the stores we visited), but its high class environment did it no favors. Comments were all over the map for this one, but we tended to agree that it was too sweet (7.2/10) for its own good. There wasn't much to redeem this one.
Second Tasting: Vietnamese Coffee
We didn't see dramatic differences between the milks, but we were curious to see how they'd fare when used as an ingredient rather than eaten on their own. So for our second round of tasting, we diluted the flavor by making Vietnamese-style coffee (that is, strong coffee with sweetened condensed milk). We mostly wanted to know if any of the milks would stand out against the others: if there was one we liked in particular and if we detected any special flavors.
Each batch (1 per milk) was made with a strong pour-over brew of Trung Nguyen coffee, which many Vietnamese coffee enthusiasts swear by. We used three tablespoons of condensed milk per batch and topped it off to 1 1/2 cups with hot coffee. The brew was strong and a little bitter, like Vietnamese coffee should be, but had definite milky flavor.
Our favorite milks didn't make our favorite coffees. Carnation, the middle of the pack in our straight up tasting, brewed our favorite coffee (6.2/10), and our top and bottom choices (Longevity and Santini) came in second at 6/10. We found no correlation between favorite coffee and either overall preference or level of sweetness. Comments were also all over the place—no strong trends emerged from this tasting. These results highlight the overall lesson of higher order condensed milk analysis: if you're really into the stuff, there are some subtle differences to be found. If you're just looking to cook with some, don't worry too much about brands. I recommend the attitude expressed on the Trung Nguyen instructions: "Add sugar, milk, or ice at your favorite taste."
Our Tasting Methodology: All taste tests are conducted completely blind and without discussion. Tasters taste samples in random order. For example, taster A may taste sample 1 first, while taster B will taste sample 6 first. This is to prevent palate fatigue from unfairly giving any one sample an advantage. Tasters are asked to fill out tasting sheets ranking the samples for various criteria that vary from sample to sample. All data is tabulated and results are calculated with no editorial input in order to give us the most impartial representation of actual results possible.