Even though it comes in a can and doesn't need to be refrigerated, evaporated milk is real milk. I’m pretty sure that if you opened my mom’s pantry you would find so many forgotten cans of evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk that you would assume she was preparing for the apocalypse. If you were like me as a kid, you loved to bake but hated to read instructions. I would often mistakenly grab the sweetened condensed milk and turn whatever culinary masterpiece I had whipped together into an overly saccharine cavity-inducing cake. In my defense, the cans look exactly the same. But—surprise!— the two shelf-stabilized milks are not interchangeable. So, what is evaporated milk anyway, and what’s the difference between condensed and evaporated milk?

There is really only one difference, and it’s pretty basic: sugar. Both condensed and evaporated milks are produced by cooking regular milk at a low temperature so that 60 percent of the water content evaporates. The heat gives them both that smooth, gold hue and concentrated viscosity. If you were to just look at the two products, you would never be able to tell the difference. Dip a finger in them and give it a taste, though, and you will immediately be able to tell which one is sweetened condensed milk and which is evaporated milk. For the sake of ease they should have just called it unsweetened condensed milk. Same thing.

Evaporated milk (also commonly called cooking milk) is very useful in the kitchen, even outside of bunkers. Before refrigerators were a common household appliance, evaporated was the milk of choice for cooking and baking because it kept literal years longer than the fresh stuff. You can also rehydrate evaporated milk with water and drink it as milk because even in its concentrated form it retains all of the nutrition of fresh milk (hello, vitamin D). 

Unlike sweetened condensed milk, evaporated milk isn’t a great replacement for coffee creamer (see: unsweetened), but it does have a very important place in a home chef’s arsenal. Using evaporated milk makes brownies richer, cakes fluffier, and mac n cheese cheesier. If that’s not enough, just remember how delicious the “no-bake” things are that you can make with evaporated milk, like fudge and cheesecake. Because it's thick, it’s also a great substitute for cream, even when making whipped cream and ice cream. Plus it has a lower calorie content than cream, if you’re into that sort of thing. Evaporated milk is basically like God’s gift to lazy people like me who just want to live in pajamas and have milk on hand forever.