They say necessity is the mother of all invention. That's not just cliche, it's a matter of fact.

Some of our more nutritious foods have the shortest shelf life. That could not be more true for dairy products.

Before the age of ultra heat treatment, powdered milk and refrigeration, the transportation of milk products or goods made with milk vexed food companies. That's why Twinkies, which are famous for having a long (but not actually that long) shelf life don't contain a lick of eggs or milk.

These products vexed food companies until long-term storage options were developed. We are better for those developments today.

Refrigeration is under-appreciated until you have a concrete problem. One such problem is that before effective refrigeration was born, milk didn't last weeks. It didn't last days. It didn't even last a day.

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Without a way to keep milk around the magic 40-degree mark of modern refrigeration, cows were milked and that milk would be used immediately. Temperature and swarming bacteria meant that unrefrigerated, the shelf life of milk was measured in hours. Some farms could cool their milk, say, in the well, but commercial operations were limited.

Prompted by the deaths of children in 1851 due to milk-borne pathogens, a New Yorker named Gail Borden Jr. sought a way to keep the bacteria in milk in check. This self-educated food scientist set his mind to the task, and following several failures he was inspired by the Shakers, who would condense fruit juice using "vacuum pans."

Condensed milk being spooned out of its tin can. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.
Condensed milk being spooned out of its tin can. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Using this method, Borden was able to boil off about 60% of the contained water without raising the temperature enough to curdle or burn the milk. After more experimentation he found that addition of sugars (equalling nearly half the volume of the milk solids) could extend the shelf life.

Borden founded the Eagle Brand, which is still a popular brand of condensed milk. At his first plant, Borden's milk needs were supplied by 200 dairy farms. His company supplied condensed milk as field rations for Union soldiers during the American Civil War. Unlike Spam and SOS, the soldiers relished it upon returning home, and the product became a pantry staple.

White bread and condensed milk sandwiches called "connie-onnie butties". Remembered fondly by many school-aged children and people in allied and occupied countries where American GIs were serving during war. The bread was most often left plain, but sometimes fried, toasted or buttered and the sweetened condensed milk poured on straight from the can. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.
White bread and condensed milk sandwiches called "connie-onnie butties". Remembered fondly by many school-aged children and people in allied and occupied countries where American GIs were serving during war. The bread was most often left plain, but sometimes fried, toasted or buttered and the sweetened condensed milk poured on straight from the can. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

It became a popular war ration once more with the eventual start of World War I, where the needs of the condensed milk companies created a cheese shortage in the United States. It was once again important during World War II where soldiers would make sandwiches with nothing but white bread and condensed milk called "connie-onnie butties." They would also make "kye," a sort of Navy hot cocoa.

Condensed milk became a global phenomenon in part due to the war ration trade that inevitably cropped up wherever U.S. troops were stationed. As a result, every continent likely has its own condensed milk recipes ranging from simple to complex.



One Ingredient Nonexploding Caramel

Developed by David Lebovitz at davidlebovitz.com

  • 1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
  • Water

One ingredient caramel made at home using sweetened condensed milk. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.
One ingredient caramel made at home using sweetened condensed milk. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Pour the sweetened condensed milk into an oven-safe pan or pie plate. Place that pie plate into another, larger pan. Fill the larger pan with hot water until it is halfway up the sides of the pie plate. Cover the pie plate with aluminum foil and bake it in a 425-degree oven for 1 to 1 1/4 hours.

Thai Iced Tea

  • 16 packets black tea (Earl Grey, Assam or something strong, alternatively 1/2 cup loose leaf black tea)
  • 4 pods star anise
  • 8 pods cardamom, smashed
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 1/2 a vanilla bean
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1 quart boiling water
  • 1/4 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup sweetened condensed milk
  • Ice

Thai iced tea is like a sweeter, more intense version of Chai made with sweetened, condensed milk.
Travis Grimler / Echo Journal
Thai iced tea is like a sweeter, more intense version of Chai made with sweetened, condensed milk. Travis Grimler / Echo Journal

Boil the tea, anise, cardamom, cinnamon, vanilla and almond extract in water for 5 minutes and strain it through a fine mesh sieve, pressing the tea to extract the most. Stir in the sugar and sweetened condensed milk until they are completely dissolved. Allow it to cool or pour it over ice and serve.

Kye

From http://ckdboats.blogspot.com/2013/08/how-to-make-kye-is-it-traditional.html

  • 1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
  • 1 mug of hot water
  • 1 dark chocolate candy bar, broken up
  • Sugar to taste

A cocoa drink - Kye - made with condensed milk, marshmallow and pieces of chocolate bar or chips. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.
A cocoa drink - Kye - made with condensed milk, marshmallow and pieces of chocolate bar or chips. Photo illustration, Shutterstock, Inc.

Place pieces of chocolate in a saucepan with hot water and heat until the chocolate melts. Add one tin of condensed milk and bring to a boil, then serve in mugs with sugar to taste.

I would recommend combining the first three ingredients in a pan and heating until the chocolate melts while stirring, then add sugar to taste.

Travis Grimler may be reached at 218-855-5853 or travis.grimler@pineandlakes.com. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Travis.