Fresh milk is a wonderful substance, but its storage life can leave a lot to be desired. On those occasions when the carton in your fridge contains a malodorous surprise, it’s handy to have a can or two of evaporated milk in your pantry as a backup. The durable “armored cow” has limits to its versatility — it’s not very palatable as a beverage — but it’s an excellent substitute in cooking and baking.

Instead of Milk

Evaporated milk is made by simmering fresh milk in a partial vacuum, where it can boil at a relatively low temperature, until half its moisture content is removed. The process does impart a distinct “cooked” flavor that’s immediately recognizable, which is why it’s a poor beverage on its own. It’s best used as a milk substitute in cooking and baking, in recipes where the milk would cook anyway. Dilute it with equal parts water, then use it like fresh milk in your favorite recipes.

Instead of Cream

Because evaporated milk is so concentrated, it’s nearly as rich as cream despite its much lower fat content; in rural areas it’s long been used in place of cream as a coffee whitener. It can also be used in cream sauces, cream soups and cream pies to reduce the calorie count while maintaining flavor. It can even be whipped like cream, though it won’t hold its shape and must be served immediately. Evaporated milk shouldn’t be confused with condensed milk, which is heavily sweetened and not a direct milk substitute.