Should sweetened condensed milk be refrigerated?

Sweetened condensed milk is a pantry staple for many home bakers and cooks. Its rich, sweet flavor makes it an ideal addition to desserts, sauces, and more. But when it comes to storage, there has long been a debate around whether or not sweetened condensed milk needs to be refrigerated after opening.

What is sweetened condensed milk?

Sweetened condensed milk is milk that has been heated to remove about 60% of the water content, making it thicker and more concentrated than regular milk. Sugar is then added – about 40 to 45% of the weight of the milk. This creates a very thick, sweet product that has a smooth texture and can last unrefrigerated for years due to the sugar content acting as a preservative.

Some key facts about sweetened condensed milk:

  • It is made by removing water from milk and adding sugar.
  • The final product contains 40-45% sugar.
  • It is extremely thick and viscous.
  • It is tan in color due to the caramelization of the milk sugars during heating.
  • It has a very sweet flavor due to the high sugar content.
  • It can last unrefrigerated for years due to the sugar acting as a preservative.

Sweetened condensed milk is often used in desserts, candies, cookies, and other sweets where a smooth, thick, and very sweet flavor is desired. Some common uses for sweetened condensed milk include:

  • Key lime pie
  • Caramel and candy making
  • Ice cream
  • Fudge
  • Cheesecake
  • Milk tea and coffee drinks

Overall, its concentrated sweetness and thick, creamy texture make it a staple ingredient in the baker’s pantry.

Does sweetened condensed milk need to be refrigerated after opening?

This is where much of the debate arises for bakers and cooks. Because sweetened condensed milk can last unrefrigerated for so long before opening, many people assume it does not require refrigeration after opening either. However, this is not the case.

Once a can of sweetened condensed milk is opened, it should be treated like regular milk or cream and refrigerated. The reason is because the heat processing it undergoes essentially sterilizes the product, killing any bacteria, molds or other pathogens prior to canning. Once opened, it is exposed to microbes that can start to grow if left unrefrigerated.

According to food safety recommendations, an opened can of sweetened condensed milk should be refrigerated and used within 2-3 weeks for optimal freshness and to prevent spoilage.

Some signs that your opened sweetened condensed milk has gone bad if left unrefrigerated include:

  • Mold growing on the surface
  • Curdling or separation
  • Sour smell
  • Bubbles or effervescence

Storing an opened can in the refrigerator prevents issues like this by inhibiting microbial growth. The cold temperature keeps the microorganisms from multiplying quickly.

Best practices for storing sweetened condensed milk

To get the longest shelf life out of your sweetened condensed milk once opened, follow these tips:

  • Refrigerate after opening – Transfer contents of the can to an airtight container or pour into a resealable bag with minimal air trapped inside. Refrigerate.
  • Use within 2-3 weeks – For best quality and freshness, use up refrigerated sweetened condensed milk within 2-3 weeks of opening.
  • Check for signs of spoilage – Look for mold, curdling, bubbles or off smells before using.
  • Keep refrigerated until ready to use – Do not let sit out at room temperature unrefrigerated after opening.
  • Keep unused portions refrigerated – Even if you pour some out into a different container for a recipe, refrigerate the rest.
  • Cover tightly – Keep the product in an airtight container when refrigerated.
  • Don’t double dip – Once you start to use it for a recipe, don’t return unused portions back to the original container.

Following a “refrigerate after opening” rule of thumb is also recommended by the experts. According to, an online reference guide for food shelf life and storage times, their recommendation for storing sweetened condensed milk is:

“Once opened, pour sweetened condensed milk into a clean airtight container (or the clean original can) and refrigerate. Use within 2 weeks after opening.”

Similarly, sites like also advise refrigerating after opening and using within 2-3 weeks. Following proper refrigerated storage guidelines will keep sweetened condensed milk fresher for longer after opening.

How long does unopened sweetened condensed milk last?

While refrigeration is key for storing sweetened condensed milk after opening, it has an incredibly long shelf life at room temperature when still sealed in the can.

The shelf life for unopened sweetened condensed milk is:

  • Pantry: 12 months past printed date on can (unopened)
  • Pantry: Up to 8 years (unopened)

The printed “best by” date on the label indicates the pantry shelf life once purchased. However, sweetened condensed milk may still be good for many years past that printed date if the can remains sealed.

According to sources like, unopened cans have actually been tested for shelf life of 8-12 years when stored properly at room temperature. The key is that the can must remain unopened and intact.

Once opened, condensation can interact with the product and introduce microbes, quickly reducing freshness and requiring refrigeration. But as long as the can has been continuously sealed, the contents are essentially sterile until exposed to air.

Signs that sealed sweetened condensed milk is bad

While it’s rare for sealed canned goods like sweetened condensed milk to actually go bad, there are some warning signs to watch out for:

  • Rusted or severely dented cans – Deep dents or rust could compromise the seal, introducing air.
  • Leaking or spurting liquid when can is opened – This indicates an unsuccessful vacuum seal.
  • Off odors when can is opened – If it smells sour or unpleasant, it’s gone bad.
  • Curdling or lumpiness of the product – Smooth, uniform texture should be present.
  • Mold – Visible mold growth would be a sign of spoilage.
  • Changes in color – Dramatic darkening or unnatural hues may indicate aging.

As long as the can is in good condition and no alarming odors or changes in appearance occur upon opening, sealed sweetened condensed milk is unlikely to be spoiled, even years past the printed date. However, it’s always wise to do a quick visual and scent inspection when cracking open an older can.

Does sweetened condensed milk need to be refrigerated for baking?

When it comes to using sweetened condensed milk in recipes, there’s an important distinction between storage versus during the baking process itself.

While proper refrigeration after opening the can is still needed for food safety, briefly bringing the product up to room or baking temperatures during the actual recipe preparation is perfectly safe.

For example, recipes for condensed milk fudge often require heating the mixture to 234-240°F to reach the final fudge consistency during cooking. Recipes for no-bake refrigerator cheesecake bars also depend on sweetened condensed milk being fluid and pourable, not cold and solidified from refrigerator temperatures.

So while you should always refrigerate the opened can when not in active use, it’s fine to let sweetened condensed milk briefly come up to room or baking temperatures while prepping a recipe. Just don’t let it sit out unrefrigerated for extended periods of time once baking is complete.

Key takeaways

To summarize best practices for sweetened condensed milk storage:

  • Refrigerate after opening – Keep refrigerated and use within 2-3 weeks for best quality.
  • Sealed cans last 12+ months – Unopened cans keep for up to a year past the printed date when stored properly.
  • Look for rust and dents – Avoid cans with compromised seals when buying.
  • It’s fine at baking temps – No need to refrigerate during recipe preparation and baking.
  • Use opened milk quickly – Don’t let sit out unrefrigerated once cooking is done.

Following these guidelines will keep sweetened condensed milk fresher for longer, while still allowing flexibility for baking use. Be sure to refrigerate promptly after recipe preparation and bake those delicious desserts worry-free!

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you freeze sweetened condensed milk?

Yes, you can freeze sweetened condensed milk to extend its shelf life. To freeze, pour into a freezer-safe container leaving headspace to allow for expansion. Seal tightly and freeze. It can keep frozen for 4-6 months. Thaw in the refrigerator before using.

Can you substitute sweetened condensed milk in recipes?

Evaporated milk combined with sugar makes a good substitute. Use 1 1/4 cups evaporated milk plus 1/2 cup sugar for every 1 cup sweetened condensed milk called for. You can also make your own sweetened condensed milk by simmering 2 cups milk down to 1 cup, then adding 1/2 cup sugar.

Is sweetened condensed milk already cooked?

Yes, sweetened condensed milk is cooked as part of the production process. It is heated to approximately 120°C / 250°F during manufacturing to thicken the milk, concentrate it, and caramelize the natural milk sugars. This high heat also sterilizes it prior to canning.

Can you make dulce de leche with sweetened condensed milk?

Yes, dulce de leche is made by slowly simmering sweetened condensed milk to caramelize the milk sugars even further. Simple recipes can be made stovetop or in the oven by gently heating unopened cans of sweetened condensed milk in water for several hours until thickened and caramel in color.

Is sweetened condensed milk ultra-pasteurized?

Most commercially sold sweetened condensed milk is ultra-pasteurized to extend its shelf life. Ultra-pasteurization heats the milk to at least 280°F for 2 seconds or more. This “ultra-high temperature” processing gives it a longer unopened shelf life of 12+ months at room temperature.


Sweetened condensed milk’s high sugar content and unique production process allow it to be shelf-stable much longer than regular dairy milk when unopened. However, refrigeration is still needed once exposed to air to prevent spoilage. Following proper refrigerated storage guidelines after opening, limiting time spent at room or baking temperatures during recipe prep, and keeping unused portions chilled until next use are the keys to safely enjoying this versatile pantry staple in all your favorite recipes.

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