Last week, writer Kevin M. Kruse tweeted the following:
As one of those people who often pulls out family stories with recipes on a food website, I disagree. Believe me, I’m also trying to feed my family, but those meals mean more to me if I’m making my mother’s beloved stuffed shells or my dad’s 1970s-steeped garlic bread. Food often holds considerable emotional weight for a lot of us, and I like hearing about writers’ personal ties to the food they make, otherwise why wouldn’t I just use the recipe on the back of the box or bag? Personally, I can even get worked up about a can of evaporated milk.
My dad grew up on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania, and my grandma still lived out there alone on 50 remote acres when I was a kid. We would road trip to visit her a few times a year. Old habits died hard with my grandmother, a child of the Depression who cooked and baked constantly, conditioned over early years of food shortages. She frequently made these hearty wheat concoctions she called brown buns, and always had a large tub of lard at the ready. And, perhaps unusual for a former dairy farmer (the cows had all departed by the time I was in grade school), she hosted several cans of evaporated milk stacked around her well-used kitchen.
We never had canned or powdered milk at home, except to combine a can with pumpkin and some eggs and sugar to make a pie at Thanksgiving. But at the farm, there was nothing better on a dewy morning than a mug of my grandma’s strong coffee with slosh of evaporated milk in it, which I snuck even as a kid (when my ratio was more like half-milk, half-coffee). Much as I loved it, it was a taste sensation I only associated with the fresh air and creek (pronounced “crick”) water of Pennsylvania, and I rarely sought out evaporated milk back home, even as a grownup in Chicago.
A few years ago, I started wondering why not. Evaporated milk might have even been superior than my beloved half-and-half coffee accompaniment, was readily available (I could keep a can in my desk at work), and didn’t go bad. And if it was that good in coffee, I wondered, what else could I use it in?
First, I wanted to find out more about my beloved beverage. I perused the label, but even though this liquid tastes sweeter to me, all that can contains is milk solids, with half the water evaporated. So it’s a bit more intense, and somehow the can seems to add some tinny flavor too, but not in a bad way? As Erin Coffield, food and nutrition expert at National Dairy Council, describes the process:
Evaporated milk is made from unsweetened, fresh, homogenized milk that is then heated to reduce it down, or concentrate it, so 60 percent of the liquid has been removed (similar to how you would reduce a sauce). Vitamin D is added and then it is canned.
And that water-removal process results in a richer, toastier-tasting milk. Coffield explains that “pantry milks” like evaporated and condensed milk (evaporated milk that’s been sweetened) were popular in the pre-refrigeration 1800s and early 1900s, as they could last for a year or more. Now, those cans have dropped in popularity: “Nowadays, less than two percent of the United States milk production is evaporated or sweetened condensed.” Which just means more cans of milk for me, so what would happen if I used evaporated milk for many typical milk uses? Let’s find out!
This is the evaporated milk gold standard. If you are a “white coffee” person, evaporated milk can make even office coffee palatable and will add a gourmet feel to your weekend pour-over or cuppa. You can try out a can for a little over a dollar at the Kroger or wherever, for half the price of a Starbucks coffee. Trust me: worth it.
My colleague Kevin Pang also drinks a cup of Hong Kong-style milk tea every morning, and that’s accomplished by adding evaporated milk (and either sugar or condensed milk) to orange pekoe or Assam tea.
Similar to coffee, the evaporated milk combines with cocoa, sugar, and a dash of salt and cinnamon to make a velvety, foamy concoction far superior to any mix. Just use the standard Hershey’s Cocoa recipe, using evaporated milk instead of regular milk. Only takes a few minutes more and the results are far superior. If you don’t have one of those little electric milk frothers, a mini-whisk should work just fine.
Our family almost engaged in fisticuffs fighting over the heavenly concoction that is pudding made with evaporated milk. The basic Hershey’s recipe here was also superlative (secret ingredient: butter. Also, evaporated milk), making any sort of box mix unnecessary. But the evaporated milk added a deep richness to the pudding that made it almost truffle-like. I added some cinnamon here also because I make it a rule to add cinnamon to anything chocolate. Just like the Mayans.
Our only outlier. Apparently evaporated milk works best when it is combined with something. On its own, it just tastes too metallic and strange. Even pouring it over berries didn’t really help. Apparently, I’ll mix evaporated milk with any sort of tea or pudding, but I will never chug it out right out of the can.
(It should be noted that at dim sum restaurants, you’ll find mango pudding served with evaporated milk.)
No matter. I found evaporated milk a superior substitute in so many uses that I will now make it a habit to always have three or four cans around. Just like Grandma.