For health-conscious baking at home, creating the perfect custard, Key lime pie, flan, dulce de leche or fudge without dairy products or refined sugar may require grabbing the saucepan and making your own version of condensed milk from scratch. Condensed milk is a rich mixture of sugar and milk that is heated and reduced to less than half its original volume; if no sweetener at all is added, the reduction is simply evaporated milk. The same technique can be used with vegan substitutions to create a more healthful version that has no cholesterol and little, if any, saturated fat.
Select a milk substitute, such as nondairy beverages made from soy, rice, almonds, hazelnuts, oats, hemp or coconut. Fortified soy milk may be the best choice, says dietitian Stephanie Gail, because it contains healthful isoflavones and a boost of protein. She notes, however, that rice milk contains more fiber than soy milk, and almond milk boasts beneficial antioxidants, potassium and other nutrients.
Choose a natural alternative to refined sugar or artificial sweeteners. Options include granulated date sugar or maple sugar and liquid brown rice syrup, barley malt syrup or agave nectar, as listed by EatingWell.com. Vitamin and mineral content of all natural sweeteners are similar, so your choice really boils down to individual preference.
Pour 3 cups of your selected milk substitute into a medium-sized saucepan on the stovetop. A thick-bottomed pan, such as one made with copper, will cook more evenly during the prolonged heating needed for the condensing process. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration recommends that copper pans be lined with stainless steel for food-safety reasons.
Stir 1/2 cup of natural sweetener into the milk substitute using a wire whisk.
Bring the mixture to a gentle boil, and then reduce heat to medium-low. Continue cooking, stirring frequently with the whisk and scraping down the sides of the saucepan with a spatula.
Reduce the heat to low as soon you see steam rising from the surface. Continue to simmer the mixture, uncovered, for about two hours, or until it has reduced to about half its original volume. When it is ready, it should be thick, creamy and somewhat sticky.
Allow the condensed mixture to cool before using as an ingredient for your favorite dessert recipe. You may also make vegan sweetened condensed milk ahead of time and refrigerate it in an airtight container for up to one week.