Amanda Hesser Didn't Have a Reason to Buy Condensed Milk

June  7, 2016

We partnered with so you can browse their (digital) shelves while you're searching for ingredients or supplies. (Seriously, they have everything!) Get almost every ingredient for this recipe here.

I've had a lifelong fondness for sweetened condensed milk. My mother used it as a key layering ingredient in Magic Cookie Bars; the sweet, pale, sauce-like milk transformed them from layers of chocolate and coconut into gooey sugar bombs. Condensed milk is also the magic in Vietnamese coffee, and the shortcut to dulce de leche. For the latter, you're supposed to cook the milk right in its sealed can in a pan of simmering water. I've never had the guts to do this—a friend once forgot hers on the stove and it exploded, raining mostly cooked dulce de leche all over her walls, her table, and her pet prairie dogs (talk about the confusing lives of pets).

Condensed milk is one of those ingredients that I pass in the grocery store and feel a little bad for. Poor thing, stuck on a low shelf—no one's paying for eye-level shelf space for you! And when I do buy it, I find myself a little ashamed at check out. I shop at the Greenmarket, stranger behind me assessing the contents of my cart, I do, I do!

Shop the Story

Mostly, I haven't had much reason to buy it. But a trip to Panama changed this. After a long hike in the Cloud Forest, our guide took us to a local place in Boquete specializing in strawberry desserts. My eye went straight to a strawberry ice capped with condensed milk and dense whipped cream. The creamy milk quietly mediated between the fruit and cream, working its magic much like it does in coffee and cookie bars.

Join The Conversation

Top Comment:
“Every summer I boil up several cans of condensed milk - we dip the strawberries into the dulce de leche and groan and moan with delight! My adult kids still think this is the best dessert ever. I've always thought that the exploding can was kind of an urban myth. You just make sure the can is always covered with water. Bring to a boil, turn to a simmer and simmer away for 2 hours.....keeping the can covered with water. Then just store the finished cans of dulce in your fridge to use when needed. Yumyum”
— jill

At home I futzed around in the kitchen until I got the strawberry ice right. It's best to use fresh, sweet strawberries and freeze them. If you have to use store bought frozen strawberries, they'll work. Add the sugar and lemon to taste and as long as you don't overmix the ice, you'll be all set. Let it firm up, then spoon it into tumblers and douse with condensed milk straight from its dignified can.

Join the Conversation

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Decs
  • Miachel Breton
    Miachel Breton
  • Lgriff28
  • Laura415
  • Antonia AT
    Antonia AT
Amanda Hesser

Written by: Amanda Hesser

Before starting Food52 with Merrill, I was a food writer and editor at the New York Times. I've written several books, including "Cooking for Mr. Latte" and "The Essential New York Times Cookbook." I played myself in "Julie & Julia" -- hope you didn't blink, or you may have missed the scene! I live in Brooklyn with my husband, Tad, and twins, Walker and Addison.


Decs March 11, 2017
My mother used to make strawberry ice cream in the freezer with frozen strawberries and sweetened condensed milk - I was just wondering if I could find her recipe somewhere. Thank you for this.
Miachel B. July 25, 2016
Love this. Great recipe and sweet (pun intended) story.
Author Comment
Amanda H. July 25, 2016
Thank you!
Lgriff28 June 28, 2016
I make my dulce de leche in my stock pot with a pasta insert. This way the can never touches the bottom of the pot, and allows for even heating of the entire can. Once the water comes to a boil, I lower the fire down 'til the water is just bubbling. After few hours, I just shutoff the fire altogether, and let the pot cool down slowly. I've been doing it for a few years, and I've never had one explode on me. :-)
Laura415 June 18, 2016
I like to keep a 6 pack of organic condensed milk around for the inevitable times I forget to buy half and half for my coffee. I rarely use it for cooking but it is great emergency stuff. We get the organic stuff at Costco for the best price around.
jena B. June 18, 2016
Are you talking about sweetened condensed milk as the article is talking about? If you are, it's got to be a delicious concoction. But I think you are referring to what my mother called "canned cream".
Laura415 June 19, 2016
No I am referring to sweetened condensed milk. My Mom also used "canned cream" or evaporated milk is what we called it. I love that stuff in my tea. Just a family food habit.
jena B. June 19, 2016
Oh boy! I'm heading to Costco tomorrow and see if I can find them. Yum.
Antonia A. June 14, 2016
An FYI re. making dulce de leche straight up in the can: Just poke two holes in the lid of the can of sweetened condensed milk before putting in the water in the saucepan and no explosions. (Be sure the top of the can is above the waterline.) I learned this trick from an Argentinian friend and it's never failed me.
Author Comment
Amanda H. June 14, 2016
Love this tip -- thank you!
MrsWheelbarrow June 13, 2016
My German-born sister-in-law uses sweetened condensed milk in her morning coffee. Unapologetically. Her parents used it - a post-war habit. I keep it around for the little apricot confections I make every Christmas ( Glad to have a summertime use.
Author Comment
Amanda H. June 18, 2016
I somehow missed this recipe when you posted it in the Early Days. :) Thanks for the reminder. Have you ever tried it with Turkish apricots?
MrsWheelbarrow June 18, 2016
Not specifically, although I have made them for so many decades I may have at some point. I tend to use the Blenheim dried apricots from California because they are such a pretty color.
Betsy K. June 12, 2016
Two additional (aside from the seven-layer cookies you mention...yum) and truly delicious desserts that I make with condensed milk are 1) Atlantic Beach Pie from the Crooks Corner restaurant in Chapel Hill, NC. which is amazingly good and easy and, 2) Nigella Lawson's "Billionaire Shortbread" (anyway that's what we call it at home), in which the condensed milk is used to make a wonderfully tasty and easy caramel. It's true that there is some embarrassment both at the checkout counter and also when people ask for the recipes (and they always do because they are so delish!) and I have to admit that one of the ingredients is condensed milk. I guess that should be my biggest problem in life...
dickensthedog June 12, 2016
I might try this with homemade sweetened condensed milk, a recipe I have been waiting to have a reason to make :)
I tried to copy and paste the recipe here w/no success. I would be happy to e-mail it to anyone who wants to try making it.
anita T. June 11, 2016
how do you make the strawberries into ice ? a.t.
Author Comment
Amanda H. June 18, 2016
Just put them on a cookie sheet and set in the freezer. Once frozen, you can use them for this recipe or put them in a plastic bag, return them to the freezer and save them for a later use.
jill June 10, 2016
Every summer I boil up several cans of condensed milk - we dip the strawberries into the dulce de leche and groan and moan with delight! My adult kids still think this is the best dessert ever. I've always thought that the exploding can was kind of an urban myth. You just make sure the can is always covered with water. Bring to a boil, turn to a simmer and simmer away for 2 hours.....keeping the can covered with water. Then just store the finished cans of dulce in your fridge to use when needed. Yumyum
Meg K. June 10, 2016
Jenna, you could put chickenwire cages over your plants to keep the deer from munching on your crops.
jena B. June 11, 2016
Thanks! Great idea! Why didn't I think of that?
Marian W. June 10, 2016
Sweetened condensed milk, really? Oh so bad for you!
Laura415 June 18, 2016
I don't see why it's "so" bad for you. In moderation it's no worse than adding milk and sugar to something. It's not really more sweet than sugar and milk used separately. To each their own I guess.
meg June 10, 2016
berries today from the garden, but not enough for this... probly eat them straight.
jena B. June 10, 2016
Sadly I must admit, I can eat a whole can of the devil if I give in to temptation.
As for strawberry politics, I have over 30 plants, organic, and as soon as they are set with blooms, the deer pluck all the leaves off, leaving just the stems. They always shoot up new leaves right away, but I lose that crop. This time, I'm putting up a fence. If they eat them after that, one way or another, I'm gonna eat those strawberries. My neighbor has already put up a tree stand on my property just waiting for me to give him the word.
Lavender C. June 10, 2016
You can do strawberries in hanging baskets. Keep them out of their reach?
jena B. June 10, 2016
I wish I had a sunny spot to hang baskets. That's a good idea. I bet I can plant them in bags on my deck. They would have to jump at least 10 feet high to get up there. I think I'll do that!
ninastrauss June 8, 2016
Food 52 should do a story on what it takes to get strawberries to the table, i.e., working conditions of migrant workers, very low pay, etc.
The last big story was done in "The Atlantic Magazine" in 1995 by Eric Schlosser and I just came across it again. Yes, it is food politics but all eating is.
donna J. June 11, 2016
I agree that most things in life are politics but I also enjoy visiting this site for its lack of politics.
LLStone June 7, 2016
My friend in middle school was from Ecuador. The after school snack at her house was a bowl of sliced bananas drizzled with sweetened condensed milk! It was so good. Sometimes, we would sprinkle with chopped peanuts. It's a good ingredient!
Author Comment
Amanda H. June 7, 2016
Taste O. June 7, 2016
Bad, bad, bad stuff. But oh so bad for you yet good in Vietnamese coffee. it's too dangerous to buy, really.