A number of kitchen staples have helped me get through the last almost 10 months of working and parenting at home. They include quesadillas (with black beans from my Instant Pot), sourdough focaccia and Thai iced tea.
The iced tea was especially crucial on long summer afternoons at home with my toddler, when I needed the caffeine fix but wanted something refreshing I could drink quickly. But there’s at least one other thing I love about Thai tea: It’s the perfect showcase for one of my favorite convenience ingredients, sweetened condensed milk.
I get it, it’s not the most popular take to profess your love for a canned good. What can I say? I adore the perfect union of dairy and sugar. This two-for-the-price-of-one staple adds just the right amount of richness and sweetness to my Thai tea, turning the tinted brew a delightful orange sherbet color when added. (My strategy: 1 tablespoon sweetened condensed milk in the bottom of a tall glass, pour over 1 to 1½ cups of boiling water to steep a generous tablespoon of loose Thai tea leaves, and add a splash of regular milk as desired.) My colleague Ann Maloney likes to stir sweetened condensed milk into her Earl Grey tea, which she says is like a “warm hug.” Can confirm! It’s also a standby in Vietnamese iced coffee and Homemade Bubble Tea (Boba).
According to “The New Food Lover’s Companion,” by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst, this cooked-down mixture of whole milk and sugar is ... 40% to 45% sugar. This gave me momentary pause, and perhaps from now on I might take, ahem, slightly smaller spoonfuls when eating it straight out of the can. As the book notes, 60% of the water evaporates in the course of heating the mixture, which is what helps give sweetened condensed milk its luxuriously syrupy (“extremely sticky”) texture.
The texture and concentrated combo of protein and sugar mean sweetened condensed milk is an all-star in more than beverages. It helps make for foolproof fudge that doesn’t need a candy thermometer for success.
In “BraveTart: Iconic American Desserts,” Stella Parks said the high levels of casein, a milk protein, in sweetened condensed milk help work another type of chemistry that lets certain fillings set without actually cooking them. The casein “coagulates in the presence of acidity rather than heat.” Case in point: Her Magic Key Lime Pie, a riff on the Magic Lemon Cream Pie that was popular in the early 20th century. As a bonus, the recipe includes instructions for how to make your own sweetened condensed milk, which Parks says “is thicker, creamier and more luscious than anything from a can, with a rich dairy flavor and subtle notes of caramel.”
If you want something slightly more refined than eating it straight up with a spoon, sweetened condensed milk lends itself well as a soak or sauce. Along with evaporated (condensed without the sugar) milk and whole milk, it is one of the three types of milk used to soak the sponge cake in Latin American favorite Tres Leches Cake.
Sweetened condensed milk forms the basis of dulce de leche, that South American standard that is a gorgeous brown color thanks to even longer cooking and the Maillard reaction (the browning process that occurs when proteins and sugars interact with each other). Even if you can’t get your hands on store-bought dulce de leche, it’s within reach as long as you have a can of sweetened condensed milk.
You can see why I panic at the mere thought of not having a can of sweetened condensed milk in the pantry – or the rest of a partially used can stored in a jar in the refrigerator. Now, about making sure there are extra clean spoons on hand ...