Two of the most often confused ingredients in the kitchen are sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk. Their names are similar, and when you take into consideration the fact that sweetened condensed milk is frequently called “condensed milk,” the two products seem just about the same even though they are very different.
Sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk start out in much the same way, as concentrated milk that has been cooked in a high heat environment to remove most of the water naturally in the milk. To make evaporated milk, about 60% of the water in regular milk is cooked out . It is available in full-fat, non-fat and low-fat varieties, and will add some richness to a recipe if you use it in place of regular milk. It has about the same consistency as cream. Sweetened condensed milk, on the other hand, is much thicker than evaporated milk and is much sweeter, though it too starts with milk that has had some of the water cooked out of it. Approximately 40% of what is inside a can of sweetened condensed milk is sugar, which is why it has a sweet, caramelized taste, light brown color and a very thick consistency.
Sweetened condensed milk and evaporated milk are not interchangeable; one cannot be substituted for another. Flavor-wise, they are at opposite ends of the sweetness spectrum, and you can’t simply add sugar to evaporated milk to sweeten it up because the milk would have too be cooked with the sugar until it has condensed down significantly for that to even approximate sweetened condensed milk. Both evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk are shelf-stable and will last for a long time. I like to keep a can of each around so that I have it if a recipe unexpectedly calls for it and I don’t have to run to the store, trying to remember which product I have at home and which one I need.