Sometimes two foods are so similar we mistake them for one another — yams and sweet potatoes, baking powder and baking soda, and cilantro and parsley, to name a few. They’re all different foods that could never be used interchangeably.

The other day I ran into another example as I was baking a pie that required condensed milk, but in a hurry, I had purchased evaporated milk. Yikes! I wondered if I had to go back to the store, or could I substitute one for the other? They both contain a shelf-stable concentrated canned milk substance, but in my research, I learned that there are clear differences. Let’s explore.

Condensed milk

Condensed milk is often referred to as sweetened condensed milk, and the name gives a hint at what makes it different. This shelf-stable milk concentrate has had about 60 percent of its water removed and loads of sugar added before it gets canned at the factory. In fact, condensed milk contains 40 to 45 percent sugar. It’s super sweet, thick, and has a light caramel color.

Condensed milk is used worldwide in baked goods and desserts like pie, pudding, ice cream, and even as a sweetener in tea or coffee.

Evaporated milk

Evaporated milk essentially condensed milk without the added sugar. This unsweetened canned milk product was popular back before refrigerators were common in households, since people still had to figure out how to get their family the daily calcium they needed.

Evaporated milk is made by slowly simmering milk on low heat until about 60 percent of its water contents evaporate. The resulting product is richer, thicker, and creamier. Manufacturers then sterilize and package the product.

If you’re looking for a use for it today, dilute it with a bit of water and mix it with mac and cheese or mashed potatoes for a creamier recipe. Or, use it straight and cut some of the fat out of your coffee or any recipe that require cream. It has a lower fat content, so it won’t whip as readily, but you can also whip it into a lower fat whipped topping.

Substituting one for the other

Even though they are both shelf stable milk products and have some similarities, they really can’t be used interchangeably. Using evaporated milk instead of condensed milk would result in bland baked goods, and using condensed milk in a recipe that calls for evaporated milk would create a dish that was way too sweet.

So if you’re like me and made a mistake with your selection at the supermarket — I hate to say this — but back to the store you go. You must stick with whichever the recipe calls for.

Also see, Odd foods that are dropped on New Year’s Eve instead of a disco ball.

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Meghan is a full-time writer exploring the fun facts behind food. She lives a healthy lifestyle but lives for breakfast, dessert and anything with marinara. She’s thrown away just as many meals as she’s proud of.