The Must-Have Canned Ingredient For Deliciously Caramelized Pork

Pork is tasty enough as it is, though there's no doubt that many pork dishes benefit from a little extra added sweetness. Consider roasted pork tenderloin served with sweet applesauce, sticky pork chops glazed with brown sugar and spices, sweet and sour pork stir-fry, or homemade pork and pineapple kebabs. Domestic goddess Nigella Lawson even cooks ham in Coca-Cola.

Another dish in which pork can be enhanced with a sweet ingredient is pork carnitas, the Mexican dish of fried and braised pork with deliciously crispy edges. Perfect for piling into soft tortillas or milk rolls, or simply serving with rice, the key to the dish is the blend of textures, combining meltingly soft, slow-cooked meat with caramelized crispiness. And the secret to that beautiful caramelization? A perhaps unlikely pantry ingredient: sweetened condensed milk.

Often used as an ingredient to make your own dulce de leche, a sweet treat popular in Latin America, condensed milk can also be a useful addition to savory dishes, lending a sweet note for a complex balance of flavors. When used in meaty dishes such as carnitas or roasted pork belly, it enhances the texture, too, caramelizing the pork as it cooks and adding extra crispiness.

Sweetened condensed milk helps the pork caramelize

Sweetened condensed milk is milk that has been heated and reduced so that the water is removed, with extra sugar added. The resulting concoction contains around 40% to 55% sugar, and this sugar acts as a natural preservative, which is why the milk is shelf-stable and lasts longer than ordinary milk.

The high sugar content in the condensed milk also aids in caramelizing the meat in dishes such as carnitas, where the pork is browned before cooking slowly in condensed milk and juice. When the lid is removed and the liquid reduced, the meat further browns and crisps up, thanks to being coated in the sugary condensed milk mixture. As in other dishes where the thick condensed milk sticks to the meat to coat it, it's a combination of the texture and sugar content that delivers such effective caramelization.

The word "caramelization," in its most basic sense, refers to the process of heating sugar until it breaks down, becoming golden-brown and, quite literally, turning into caramel. But it also describes the act of cooking foods with sugar until they become brown and sweet, which is exactly what happens when pork is coated in sweetened condensed milk as it cooks. Add to this the Maillard reaction (different from caramelization), which causes meat to brown when the amino acids in its proteins are exposed to heat, and you have the perfect conditions for crisp, brown meat.

Other ways to enhance meat dishes with condensed milk

It's not just carnitas, or pork, that benefit from condensed milk, a surprisingly versatile ingredient that can be used for much more than sweet recipes. This deliciously sweet, gloopy liquid can also enhance a number of other savory meat dishes, helping to add flavor as well as boost texture.

Try adding sweetened condensed milk to coconut milk, soy sauce, curry powder, and seasoning to make a rich chicken or pork satay. Add the ingredient to coconut milk and massaman paste for a sweet, fragrant chicken curry, or stir a little into a Thai red curry to dial down the heat. Or, combine condensed milk with ketchup, mustard, and other seasonings for a sweet, tangy glaze towards the end of the cooking time when making chicken wings.

Alternatively, sweetened condensed milk can also be used as a marinade to give meat extra texture and flavor. Try combining it with fish sauce, soy sauce, sugar, and Asian spices, and marinate pork chunks in the mixture for several hours before threading onto skewers and grilling. Or just add a little to a spicy, aromatic dipping sauce for crispy chicken or grilled shrimp. Because, whether it's used to caramelize meat, balance heat, or just bring something sweet, that little pantry jar can be used for so much more than cakes, bakes, and desserts.