There's Nothing a Can of Sweetened Condensed Milk Can't Do
Opening a can of sweetened condensed milk never fails to deliver a rush of anticipation and excitement. As the lid is removed, the heavy pull of the super-cooked-down sugary milk sticking to the metal surface signals its unique, rich sweetness. That lusciousness on the lid is my bonus prize, which I wipe off with a finger or spatula to snack on.
Having grown up with sweetened condensed milk (SCM), I knew it as sua đac ("condensed milk"), used as a sweetener for Vietnamese-style coffees and smoothies, a dip for feather-light chunks of crisp baguette, and the basis for my mom's steamed flan.
In Vietnamese kitchens, the emptied cans make handy measuring tools. Four SCM cans' worth of rice weighs 1 kilo. In his recipe for tart-sweet da ua (Vietnamese yogurt), F&W Associate Art Director Khoa Tran efficiently reuses the can to measure the milk.
Condensed milk's journey to countries like Vietnam began in Europe in the early 1800s. Addressing the need to preserve fresh milk, French confectioner Nicolas Appert was the first to condense and can milk, in 1827. To improve shelf life and flavor, British civil engineer William Newton added sugar but did not commercialize his product. It wasn't until the 1850s that American innovator Gail Borden developed an industrial method for producing sweetened condensed milk. Borden's milk was a Civil War ration that became beloved to many people during and after the conflict, bolstering its popularity in America.
The European idea that hopped to America then returned to Europe, eventually finding its way to French Indochina and elsewhere by the early 20th century. SCM became such a Vietnamese staple during the Vietnam War that American-owned Foremost Dairy, operating in South Vietnam to supply milk products to the U.S. military, also produced the gooey deliciousness to sell to locals.
That long history explains why I always keep a few cans in my pantry for perennial Viet treats. Of course, I enrich inky coffee with sua đac, but to double down on it, I make marbly, tangy, bittersweet glasses of yogurt coffee, which I first sampled in Hanoi years ago.
Modern Viet uses for the milk abound, such as 2018 F&W Best New Chef Kevin Tien's sensational grilled shrimp with muôi ot xanh sua đac, a sauce made with green chile and condensed milk. Tien employs SCM as a supporting star to lend a beguiling, creamy roundness that tames his feisty, fiery condiment.
Looking for non-Viet condensed milk ideas, I reached out to Pati Jinich, public television show host and author. Aside from featuring SCM in classic flan Napolitano, she also employs it in flourless almond cake and cuatro leches cake; recipes in her latest cookbook, Treasures of the Mexican Table.
But what about unexpected, savory uses? Jinich pointed me to her family's recipe for carnitas, which relies upon a pivotal smidgen of SCM to help caramelize the pork. Many cooks in Mexico City add it to carnitas, she says. I treat her stunningly-good recipe like pulled pork, tucking the tasty shreds into rolls that owe their fluffy, slight sweetness to what else but condensed milk!
An opened can of sweetened condensed milk invites magical, multipurpose, cross-cultural cooking adventures. Explore and enjoy it.
My Standby Brands
Of the many sweetened condensed milk options sold at standard, Asian, and Latin grocery stores, full-fat products containing only milk and sugar best express SCM's alluring powers. Explore your markets. Condensed milk is often shelved with flour and sugar; but if there are Latin and Asian sections, check there, too. Chinese and Southeast Asian markets may display it on end-caps because SCM is that popular.
- Longevity ("Old Man") has been a Vietnamese cult favorite for more than 45 years both in the country and abroad. The gold version has just a tad more fattiness than the regular one.
- Borden's Eagle Brand is very similar in flavor to Old Man regular. If you can't get to an Asian market, you'll be fine with this American stalwart for your Viet coffee fix.
- Also made by Borden, Magnolia is more intensely flavored than Eagle Brand. The bilingual label targets Spanish-speaking customers, but this SCM's tastiness is cross-cultural.
- Nestlé's La Lechera is also sinfully good, tasting a bit more lush than other brands. Along with regular SCM, look for a dulce de leche rendition.