Milk Can Dinner – Food for 40

We attended an extended family reunion in Mount Pleasant, Utah. It is about 2 hours south of Salt Lake City in a very small farming community.

Milk Can DinnerThere were about 40-50 people there - including aunts and uncles and cousins that we didn't even know we had. Two of the popular events at the reunion was the Chinese Auction (ping me if you would like more information about that) and the other was dinner. It was a milk can dinner!

The milk cans (or cream cans) come in various sizes, the biggest being 10 1/2 gallons. That can is about 3 1/2 feet tall and about a foot in diameter.

There was enough room for Grandma to put in ~25 lbs of potatoes, carrots, onions, peppers, and several roasts. They spiced everything up nice, added some water and put it on a propane burner with the lid slightly cracked to allow the steam to escape and slow cooked it for several hours. You could smell it all over the yard and garden. When it was done, the roasts were so tender they fell apart with your fork and the vegetables were done - but not mushy.

It was so good! You ought to try a milk can dinner for your next big gathering. Sorry - I don't have a source for used milk cans...let me know if you do.  However, I did find a source for new cream cans.


I had a great contact from a lady in California who offered to provide Milk Can Dinner tips and tricks. She provided awesome information that I wanted to include in the post.

Please continue to post comments and suggestions on making the ultimate "Milk Can Supper".


I am what is known as a "dump cook". My Mother always said I'd be my happiest cooking for a thrashing crew and she was right. I heard about Milk Can Dinners years ago and had my first opportunity in April '09 to make my dream come true.

Our little club built a float for the Petaluma Butter and Eggs Days parade. We built the float on one of our members ranches so I took the opportunity to cook this dinner for everyone. IT WAS A SMASH HIT!

I first had a Milk Can Dinner (I prefer to call it Supper as it goes more toward the "Okie trend") on a motorcycle run in Kings County California several years ago.

Prior to that trip, I had purchased a 10 gal. milk can from a surplus store just for grins.It was aluminum and brand new and cost me a total of $10.00. It still had the Norwegian manufacturers documentation in it.

The group that put the "Supper" together on that motorcycle run turned out to all be children of the dust bowl travelers and let me tell you, the supper was great!

I have cooked it twice now and learn each time. I cooked this supper both times on a portable propane burner.

This is such a fun meal, good food and the men just hang around with the aromas and asks questions. It's fun to see the guys get so involved, it's almost primal. This last time, I served 50 and the cost was $102.00.

Here are some things you probably already know but I have been writing items down as I go.

  • This needs to be done when corn is in season
  • For a 10 Gal can: 2" of liquid to start = 1 1/2 gal. I started with 4 cans of beer and then the rest of the 1 1/2 gal. liquid was water. The cabbage on the bottom of the can takes any "burn" that might happen. My guests wanted more cabbage and I had a total of 6 heads....quartered, four on the bottom and two on top.Next time I'll add more cabbage I guess!!! :-) see below
  • Break the corn cobs into halves for easier handling when turning out and for the guests use also
  • If you use small pre-packaged pre-peeled carrots they cook too fast and break down. I used 5 lbs of bulk carrots and could have used more. They were cut into approx. 5-6" lengths
  • Pour off all the liquid (retain some) before you turn your prepared food into bowls. It not only keeps from splashing hot liquid but it's easier to separate the individual product into containers, all corn, all brats, all potatoes, etc. Also, food does not continue to cook when out of the hot liquid
  • Try and buy potatoes all the same size so they will cook evenly
  • I put in 50 brats and 2 large ham shanks (quartered). The ham shanks were plenty of seasoning so I didn't have to salt and pepper. Some people salt and pepper before they even taste the food anyway. I figured I'd let them do that but it didn't appear that too many did. The ham shanks were in demand and I may use more of them at a later time. As the brats are close to the top, I could spear one after 1 1/2 hours of cooking on the propane burner and determine if all was done and ready

I used a portable propane burner to cook my dinner on. I had all items at room temp. when I put them in the liquid in layers and had already turned the burner on medium high. My first one burned some of the cabbage so I didn't turn the burner completely up. I did start at 5:00 and turned the food out at about 6:45 when I was satisfied the brats were cooked.

My first dinner was supported by salads made in wooden buckets...I have inventive and precious friends.

My friend in Grand Prairie Texas wanted information on where to get a milk can so I found some on e-bay and sent that info to her. I'm keeping my information in a binder as I know this is going to come up again.

Let me know if you need a cook to help out at your next shindig! Strangers are just friends we haven't met! My apron is washed and ready to go.............
AG

Milk Can Dinner

Picture of the Now famous Milk Can on a hay bale wagon

Comments

  1. Heather says:

    Tell me more about the Chinese Auction!

  2. Heather asked about the Chinese Auction process.

    Each family coming to the family reunion was asked to bring items to donate for the auction. These were great as all of my aunts would bring homemade quilts and other incredible handmade items. There would be toys, kitchen items, quilts, homemade goodies and treats, and some junk too :-).

    The Chinese Auction actually was a separate auction or raffle for each donated item. For each item, my Grandma would put a cup. Then she would sell reffle tickets 10 for $1. The kids would all put their raffle tickets in the cups in front of each item that they wanted. If they wanted it really bad, they would put a lot of tickets in the cup.

    At the end of the auction time, each item was brought forward, the cup full of raffle tickets was dumped into a bowl and my Grandpa would choose the winning ticket. You had to be present to win.

    Often times, the person who put the most tickets in the cup would win, but sometimes the 5 year old who put one ticket in the cup would win a huge kingsize 50 year old quilt or something like that.

    It was always an exciting and fun event...there were lots of tickets sold and every family usually came away winning something.

  3. Heather says:

    What a fun and memorable day! I have been inspired by your story and will be hosting a milk can supper of my own! I found milk cans in the classifieds section of a local online newspaper. A couple of questions about the dinner:

    1) Did one milk can feed 40 people?
    2) How did you serve the dinner--did it turn out like a stew, and did you simply dump the contents of the can into a large serving bowl/bucket?
    3) Any other tips or useful advice for preparing and serving would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

  4. Answers to Heather's questions:

    1) Did one milk can feed 40 people?

    The milk can had room for a bag of potatoes, carrots, and 3-4 roasts. They filled it with some water (I wasn't there when they started, but I am guessing several inches in the bottom of the can) flavored with beef bullion cubes and spiced up the roasts really well before cooking. The rest of the seasoning for the vegetables was just salt and pepper.

    Along with the Milk can contents, there were tons of salads and side dishes, drinks, desserts, etc., so I don't remember if there were concerns with there not being enough food. I guess it would depend on how many kids and how many adults are part of that 40 people count.

    2) How did you serve the dinner--did it turn out like a stew, and did you simply dump the contents of the can into a large serving bowl/bucket?

    As dinner started, they dumped the contents of the milk can into a couple of big cooking pots and that is how they served it. The meat was so tender they could divide it up with a fork. The vegetables were soft, but not mushy.

    3) Any other tips or useful advice for preparing and serving would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!

    I would recommend that you play with it once or twice for your own family before trying it on a large group of people...that way you figure it out and don't end up having an unexpected result in the middle of a big gathering.

    I would also figure out how many potatoes, carrots, and how many roasts you are going to need and stuff the milk can to see if you are going to be able to fit everything that you need into the can before cooking for the group.

    Best of luck and let us know how it goes.

  5. Hello,

    I fell in love with this cream can cooking concept and discovered the cans are hard to find. Soooo we now import pure stainless steel ones in 4 sizes. We are constantly testing recipes and are even working on one for prime rib! Early results are lookin' (and tastin') good!

    Have fun out there!!!

    John

  6. When you say you put roast in, was it cooked first? I am not sure about putting raw meat in and all the juices in the corn and etc.

  7. Shelley asked about putting an uncooked roast in with the vegetables.

    I put the meat in raw. Cooking it for 5-6 hours in a milk can creates a pressurized cooking environment that is similar to cooking in a crockpot hours and produces very tender meats and vegetables.

    I did cut the meat up into smaller chunks to help with the cooking...about 2-3 inches square to help with the cooking process.

    The meats were completely done by the time the dinner was ready to cook. No problems with raw or undercooked meats. Not only was the meat done, but it was very tender as well.

  8. Auntie em says:

    Our area church groups and boys scouts serve this often and they call it the "Pig Trough Meal" when its ready the main cook calls out "soooooeeeeee here pigs, pigs", and the the boys come running. They dump it into big sanitized trough metal pans then all the kids serve themselves and dish up the parts they love. Its a tradition for our Malad, Idaho area. No one has ever gotten sick with this meal and it is always requested for scouts, camps, family reunions and youth conferences.

  9. Auntie em says:

    ps...of course we dont use beer - we prefer chicken and beef stock.

  10. If you want to speed up the process you can also put in pre-cooked hams / turkey breasts/ spicy sausages. Then you're only cooking the veggies. This is how my Dad does it.

    I'm on the hunt for a milk can that is in good shape to start doing this myself. I'm in Lehi, Utah so if anyone knows of a place I'd appreciate it.

    thx!
    levicress@hotmail.com

  11. Levi,

    Thanks - I actually cooked using smoked hams last weekend and it turned out great!

    You can try Ogallala as a source of new cream cans (http://www.ogallalacreamcansupper.com/) but I don't have a source for any used cans.

    Dave

  12. I'm glad that you found http://www.ogallalacreamcansupper.com. It was started and is operated by my uncle. Cream can suppers are a family tradition.

    Here is some advice on your cabbage burning on the bottom: We always put a couple of inches of rocks in the bottom. Yes, rocks. We find some decent sized rocks and clean them really well (we use the same ones every time, so once you have them, it's easy). The rocks keep the food from touching the bottom, therefore it doesn't burn. Also, the rocks keep the water off of the food.....as you want the food to be steamed, not boiled.

    I hope that helps!

  13. Also, to answer a couple of your questions about how to serve it:

    One method that works really well (and kind of adds to the nostalgia) is a wheelbarrow. You simply line the wheelbarrow with plastic, and dump the whole contents of the can in it, take out the rocks, and it's ready to serve. The best way to serve is to use tongs and let people people pick out whatever elements that they want.

  14. As a cheesehead, it's kind of amusing to read that people have problems finding milk cans. (The 10.5gl size was almost exclusively used for tranporting milk. Very few farmers generated enough cream to ship the large size. Cream cans were a few gallons at most and usually smaller.) If you want the old fashioned style of milk can, come to Wisconsin. We are awash in them. They get used for porch decorations, mail box supports, planters and most anything else you can think of. Ironically, I've never heard of anyone using them as a cooking vessel. An average condition can can be picked up for $15.00 or less. One that's still in bright tin will fetch more. If you'd like to retin an old one for cooking purposes contact http://www.archertinning.com. Stainless steel cans are available used on eBay for about $100.00+ but you'll be up against the goat and sheep milking crowd.

  15. Oh my goodness...this brings back so many memories...my late husband and I used to do this every summer for family gatherings. I'm cleaning out my milk can tomorrow so I can do this for friends this weekend! What fun! For those who asked: I just count up how many people I need food for and put in that amount...Friday will be about 20 and it will all cook in about an hour and a half...just keep an eye on it...everyone loves to sit out around the fire pit and visit anyway, so it's not like your not right there. :-)

  16. I am having about 15 people over at the end of the month and wanted to do the shrimp/sausage/potato/corn on the cob combination. I have only eaten this wonderful treat but never cooked it. What advice do you have for cooking this combo? Do I put it all in at the same time? Is there a special way to layer the ingredients? How long would it generally take for all of these items to cook?

  17. Debbie,

    The combination of shrimp, sausage, potatoes, and corn sounds delicious! The shrimp will take the shortest time to cook while the potatoes will be the longest. I gave some hints in another Milk Can Dinner post regarding staged cooking for vegetables (see http://barbequelovers.com/grills/milk-can-dinners/cream-can-dinner-recipe), but because I have never tried cooking shrimp, you are going to have to experiment. I would start with the potatoes, corn and sausage and watch the steam. After you are about done, put the shrimp in last to give them just a few minutes and then take everything off the heat. That way your shrimp isn't overdone.

    Let me know how it goes
    Dave

  18. Anne McElhoes says:

    I am very interested in finding a used milk can and preparing a milk can dinner for a family reunion. Is it safe to use antique cans that are galvanized tin or aluminum? Is there a way to clean and season the old milk cans to make them safe for cooking? I have looked at the Ogallala website and am considering the new stainless steel, but there is a bit of nostalgia in finding and using an antique one. Currently there are several for sale in our local ads. Would appreciate some advice.

  19. Hi Anne,

    I have used an antique can and a new stainless steel can for my Milk Can dinners. The one thing that you need to be careful about is rust on the inside of the can. If you can find an old one with no rust, you should be good to go.

    Dave

  20. Anne McElhoes says:

    Thanks so much for the quick response. We will scrutinize the condition of the antique cans we are looking at and hopefully find one suitable for the occasion. Your website has been extremely helpful.

  21. You can buy a can cooker off Internet or at bass pro the are smaller 4 gallons
    Made of allum
    They are about $80 and we just cooked in it today
    Put in 48 small ears of corn 6 lb potato 4 lb carrots
    Added 16oz water spices butter took about 30 minutes to start steaming
    Then let it cook for 30 more minutes turned out excellent
    Potato and carrots were completely done
    Just google can cooker

  22. do you have to have a milk can to cook this type of meal?? or can you use something else that may work the same or close to the same?

  23. I found a big cream can at a dairy that had shut down. It
    was rusty inside so I put a wire brush on an electric drill
    & removed all the rust. Then I oiled the can with cooking
    oil & wiped it out with paper towels several times until
    the paper towels came out clean. Sure was a lot of work but well
    worth it. We had 3 of them at a big family reunion, probably 150
    people. We left the inside of the corn husks on the corn so that as
    the sausage cooked it dripped on the corn & the husk
    trapped some of the seasoned drippings. We loaded it with red
    potatoes, carrots, cabbage & onions & polish
    sausages & franks on the top for the kids. We should have
    added the franks half way through the cooking time as they split
    up. We let every one do their own salt & pepper. WE turned
    our can into a pressure cooker. You drill a 3/8 inch hole in the
    lid & put in a little bolt & nut that fits to keep
    out the dust & dirt when not in use. Put in 2 quarts water
    & remove the bolt. Build a small fire between 2 cinder
    block & keep it going until you have a nice bed of embers.
    Put the cooker over the fire so it sits on the edge of the 2 cinder
    blocks. Add wood to keep the fire going. When the steam is coming
    up for 5 min. pound the lid down with a hammer. The food is
    pressure cooked in 20 min. No kidding!!!! I couldn't believe it
    myself. WORD OF CAUTION!!!! REMOVE COOKER FROM FIRE & WAIT
    5 MIN, BEFORE TAPPING OFF THE LID. My brother-in-law after doing
    many of these meals forgot to wait & immediately tapped off
    the lid & blew the whole can a food 15 ft. in the air!!!!!.
    Very entertaining. Good thing he wasn't leaning over the
    cooker!!!!! We've never had any problems with burnt food. I think
    we put the carrots in first. I love the idea of using a wheelbarrow
    & you could have several tongs around the edge to pick up
    the food. We used styrofoam (sp) chests the first time, but, that
    didn't work very well as the neck of the cooker was so hot it
    melted the chest. Be sure to have 4 hot pads for each cooker. It
    takes 2 people to empty those cookers. Oh, & another thing,
    I wouldn't use franks as it would be to much bother to open up the
    cooker half way through. I guess you could cut some of the sausages
    in half for the little kids. Has anyone cooked a stew or other
    things in these cream cans?

  24. We put rings from canning jars on the bottom instead of
    rocks.

  25. For those of you who do season the vegetables - other than salt & pepper, what other seasonings have you tried that you like?

  26. You can get a" Can Cooker" or ''can cooker jr ( Capacity approx 2 gallons)" @ Cabelas , order a wire rack for the bottom as well spray the inside with ''Pam '' for no sticking .

  27. We use a turkey cooker and it works GREAT@!!

  28. I've cooked it a variety of ways over the years. I'm retired military so it was always a good meal for a squadron party or gathering. I add Cajun Seasoning to mine in addition to the ingredients many of you listed above. You can mix up seasonings too such as fresh parsley, basil, Oregeno and Celantro that gives it added flavor. I just use a turkey cooker over a propane unit with a large basket inside to pull it all out when it's done. Like someone said, I try to get the same size potatoes but if I find one a little bigger and put it right on top and when that puppy is fork tender, ya know the rest is done.

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