Why Aren't More Americans Buying Canned Milk?

Creaminess and complexity with the convenience of a can.

Photo by Julia Gartland

At the grocery store the other day, my husband and I encountered cleared shelf after cleared shelf. No more flour. Pasta. The kind of flour used to make pasta. Oat milk. But, to our absolute delight and confusion, the canned milk section appeared untouched.

Don’t get me wrong—I have nothing against oat milk (or almond, hemp, cashew, or coconut for the matter). It’s just not what I’d consider a staple. Whether preparing our home for Florida’s yearly hurricane season or a pandemic, the first thing we worry about is our canned milk inventory.

If you’ve licked the spoon while soaking a tres leches cake, or slurped a Vietnamese iced coffee down too quickly, you’re familiar with the moreish-ness of evaporated and condensed milk. They’re extra milky, toasty, almost savory in flavor. I use both with abandon—for creamy stews and sticky glazes; I even just drink it straight. So, you might understand why the fully stocked canned milk section (versus the decimated shelf-stable oat milk section) at the store bewildered me. Why aren’t more Americans buying, cooking with, even drinking tinned milk regularly—and especially now?

Peruvians are no strangers to shelf-stable milk. It’s common for children to nurse equal parts evaporated milk and warm water from a baby bottle or sippy cup (I did). But, when we moved to America, my (American) mom switched us over to the fresh milk she had grown up drinking. I remember how enthusiastically she served it to me; I gagged. She tried adding sugar to it to make it more palatable, but I wouldn’t budge. Where was my lechecita? The one that was the color of peaches and cream, and tasted like a warm hug?

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“This article wasn't written to "send a message" of any sort. It was simply a pleasantly nostalgic, informative article narrating cultural and culinary use of a specific item. No exhortations - mercifully.”
— epiphany

My mom thought that fresh milk was a luxury unique to this country. Drinking it marked us as Americans, and she wanted us to assimilate as quickly as possible. We were taught to believe that Peruvians’ taste for shelf-stable milk was one of necessity, not gustatory; Peru is, after all, a developing country.

My dad followed suit, and swapped canned milk for fresh in his home cooking. Because fresh milk is naturally sweeter and contains more water, his huancaína sauce, a creamy cheese and ají amarillo chile sauce, lacked depth and body—something only evaporated milk could provide. My Peruvian-American friends would gush about the mugs of traditional hot chocolate their mothers or abuelas made on noche buena. However, my dad’s Christmas Eve chocolate never elicited the same emotional response from me.

My own attempts at recreating creamy Peruvian dishes also fell flat. My ají de gallina, a creamy chicken stew, was watery. My leche asada, a baked custard with a burnished top, tasted like a ghost of itself—never rich enough, too thin. Both my dad and I thought our failures resulted from lacking a “buena mano”—a good hand, the Peruvian expression for having an innate talent for cooking. We thought there must have been a secret to successfully making Peruvian dishes, something as mysterious as the origins of the Nazca Lines or the engineering of Machu Picchu. In reality, it was just the milk we were using.

Only recently did I find out that people in Peru can get fresh milk; they just prefer canned. I remember the day I reintroduced it to my huancaína sauce recipe—memories of my beloved lechecita came flooding back. The depth, body, and tang that I was so longing for was back. Evaporated milk thickens on its own when simmered—much like heavy cream but with a lot less fat—making it ideal for satisfying, but not overly rich creamy sauces. My ají de gallina is now so delicious that it even won a cook-off. Every December 24th, I now mix equal parts of evaporated milk and water to make hot chocolate, and I finally understand why so many Peruvians look forward to noche buena.

Evaporated milk is to fresh milk as demi glace is to broth. Or, caramelized is to sweated onions. Through the canning process, the qualities of fresh milk intensify, transforming the already delicious liquid into something magical. There is a place for the former, sure, but the latter brings so much more character to a dish.

I now consider both fresh and canned milk to be authentic and traditional, true to the Peruvian-American experience. Both figure equally into my cooking (canned a bit more, as of late, because of the circumstances). In my pantry now, I’ve got Parmalat (a UHT milk I dunk fresh baked cookies into), cans of creme de leite (perfect for Brazilian stroganoff, tuna noodle casserole, and passion fruit mousse), and evaporated milk for my ají de gallina, creamiest pasta sauces, and the most soul-warming rice pudding.

Oat milk, though? None for me.

Recipes That Lean On Canned Milk

Are you, too, a fan of canned milk? Tell us about it in the comments!

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Tjllew
  • Susan Pray
    Susan Pray
  • Becky
  • mdelgatty
  • Linda
I was born in Peru to a Limeño father and a Texan mother. We moved to Miami when I was five, and I grew up in the "Kendall-suyo" neighborhood—often called the 5th province of the Inca Empire because of its large Peruvian population. I've been writing about food since I was 11 years old, and in 2016 I received a master's degree in Gastronomy from Boston University. A travel columnist at Food52, I'm currently based in Hollywood, Florida—another vibrant Peruvian community—where I am a writer, culinary tour guide, and consultant.


Tjllew February 3, 2022
I used to love condensed milk in coffee or tea, but I no longer buy it as it’s changed considerably from years past. It used to be very thick and milky, but now it’s super thin and doesn’t get thick in the fridge. I think they removed some milk fat and added more sugar. It’s a disgrace really.
Stayway77 June 9, 2023
I'm not sure what brand you use, but every time I buy sweetened condensed milk, it's thick enough that I use a spoon to make sure I get it all out of the can. It's thicker than pancake syrup for sure.
Susan P. May 9, 2020
There is definitely no canned milk in my grocery stores. But thanks for the heads up info for the future.
Becky May 8, 2020
Shhhhh. It's my secret ingredient for baking and cooking. There are always a couple of cans in my pantry. I don't drink it...but I don't drink milk. One of the things I advised my (adult, living away from home) kids when this pandemic started was to stock up on canned milk. Easy substitution and you can freeze what you don't immediately use. Win-win.
mdelgatty May 8, 2020
I think evaporated milk used to be the only kind that came in cans long ago, and it was important when refrigeration was still not common everywhere. My Mom used good old Carnation evaporated milk in her coffee; I hated the taste then and still identify that 'canned milk taste' in some foods and dislike them. I have found other brands of evaporated milk that don't have that same taste, though...
I'm not familiar with some of the terms used here, but I think at least some of the references must be to regular milk in 'tetra paks' rather than evaporated condensed milk like my Mom's Carnation. But then there's sweetened condensed milk, which seems to be called condensed milk in some places. Very confusing...
Linda May 8, 2020
I have been unable to find evaporated milk that contains ONLY milk and added not gums/ thickeners. That’s why I don’t use it.
Linda May 8, 2020
I meant without added thickeners.
Mjfood May 7, 2020
I used to love cooking dessert dishes with or have canned evaporated milk in my coffee instead of powdered creamer, it just tastes good. But I developed an allergic reaction to Nickel so I no longer buy canned anything anymore, so if it's in a box I'll buy it!
Kendall May 7, 2020
Hi Mjfood, evaporated milk now comes in cartoons (Nestle Carnation) and if you're lactose intolerant you also have the option of Lactose-Free. I use evaporated milk when I make oatmeal and hot cocoa
Mjfood May 7, 2020
Hi Kendall, not lactose intolerant and I did see it in a carton and have bought it like that, my apologies for the confusion. Thanks for the feedback about the oatmeal though I will have to try that out :)
Sharr L. May 7, 2020
The first items I stocked up on were Shelf Milk and Evaporated Milk...,,,
Can't do without my milk...what would my oatmeal be without it ?
Rosalind P. May 7, 2020
Canned milk is always in my pantry. All the reasons stated in the article, but in addition, so many recipes call for whole milk, and we keep only skim for daily use. So canned is my go to when substituing skim won't work. I keep powdered milk as well. Use it in bread baking regularly. And reconstituted, it's great for stretching your bottled milk. It's very, very shelf-stable. Powdered whole milk is available but hard to come by.
Sasha B. May 7, 2020
As a retired person living alone I always buy canned milk. I don't drink fresh milk or use it on cereal. It gets wasted. I find canned milk essential for cooking, and I keep a supply that is shelf convenient and reliable. Wouldn't be without it. And I like the taste.
Eva J. May 7, 2020
Great story, loved it!
Angela C. May 6, 2020
I always keep regular canned milk on hand because I discovered the delight of what they call "bananas and cream" when I was living in Colombia. There is nothing quite like it! No need for sugar, but my husband likes a little cinnamon.
Peaches May 6, 2020
I learned something from this article, thank you. I grew up drinking fresh milk so am used to it's flavor and like it. But now I think I'd like to explore the tastes some other parts of the world enjoy.
Smaug May 6, 2020
Not sure of the situation in Peru, but I know that, at least a few decades ago, milk in Brazil was simply undrinkable because the cattle were fed with sugar cane discards; the flavor was just awful, and growing up with it didn't seem to help.
mdelgatty May 8, 2020
Did the sugar cane feed affect the taste of the meat too?
Smaug May 8, 2020
I can only report that the beef I had there was mostly extraordinarily good, but don't know that it was because of the feed.
Michael C. May 6, 2020
I do not drink much milk myself even in my coffee so I always have a can of milk for people to drink in their coffee and they all seem to enjoy it. Never had a complaint and they keep coming back!!
Judy S. May 2, 2020
We spend part of every winter in Mexico and only buy shelf stable box milk. Always have some on hand and it never gets sour. Would love to be able to buy it here in the states as a back up to fresh milk
bookjunky May 4, 2020
Costco has it
Anne J. May 7, 2020
So does Kroger, bend down its on the low shelves
Kendall May 7, 2020
You can get Nestle Carnation Evaporated Milk Reclosable Packaging Carton at 240 E Sandford Blvd, Mt Vernon, NY 10550 Regular and Lactose-Free
Regine May 2, 2020
Love the flavor of evaporated milk

I am Haitian American and I recall that if
I asked for a glass of milk, I would be given a glass made with half evaporated milk and half water. Or if I was given hot
chocolate or something like oatmeal, it would be made with evaporated milk. Same thing with mac and cheese.
bina May 1, 2020
Here in Hong Kong, all the local tea shops use a blend of evaporated and condensed milk to make "Hong Kong Tea", a thick, sweet, strong and milky brew that Hong Kong people love. Fresh milk is for fancy places. Also most local baked goods contain one or the other of these milks for their unique fragrance. What I'm trying to say is that canned milk have their place in cooking as does fresh milk. There is no moral judgement to it.
Smaug May 1, 2020
Canned milk was a lot more popular in this country when refrigeration was less available- old school recipes like Key Lime Pie (the real thing) were built around non refrigerated ingredients. It's still pretty common in dessert recipes, both baked and frozen. It's really nothing like fresh milk in either it's properties, flavor or uses. As a beverage it's pricey, doesn't do much for thirst, and is pretty yucky if you didn't grow up with it.
Single L. May 1, 2020
This article did nothing to help a novice cook understand how to use canned milk in recipes so what was it's point?
dack May 5, 2020
If you want to reconstitute it to fresh milk like concentrations, the article repeatedly says mix equal parts evaporated milk with water. And it describes the taste differences and suitability of each for different recipes.
hungjuror May 1, 2020
Is this the message we should be sending to consumers (buy canned milk) when dairy farmers are dumping millions of gallons of *fresh* milk down the drain? Honest question.
Louise V. May 1, 2020
Boycotting canned milk - which has been around for ages in places that had/have no access to fresh milk - is not a solution for food overstock and surpluses. Food insecurity is going to become a huge problem soon; why not develop a broader buyer's market or find a way to get the fresh milk to hungry boys and girls across North and South America?
dack May 5, 2020
Where do you think evaporated milk comes from?
Sasha B. May 7, 2020
The Milk Marketing Board needs to promote the use of canned milk. Also it should be made available in larger cans.
epiphany May 7, 2020
This article wasn't written to "send a message" of any sort. It was simply a pleasantly nostalgic, informative article narrating cultural and culinary use of a specific item. No exhortations - mercifully.
Jenny C. May 7, 2020
If they had the ability to process all that milk, they wouldn’t be dumping it.

The issue is that there are not sufficient processing facilities available to keep up with the volume of milk that was available.
dack May 7, 2020
If there was more demand, more fresh milk would be diverted to canning. As the author points out, the store shelves have been fully stocked with canned milk this entire time. No one is going to increase production of canned milk if there is no demand, even if fresh milk is being dumped.

Wishfully directing people to buy a highly perishable good that they are already barely consuming is futile. At least canned milk can be stockpiled and would not even hurt the dairy industry by replacing demand as hungjuror is indicating.