Label Babel: Buying Milk and Cream


| 9/12/2011 10:32:27 AM


Tags: milk, cream,

Buying Milk

The usual commercial choices in this department unfortunately have more to do with arbitrary niche marketing than simple, unvarnished milk or cream. Here, in ascending order of richness, are the kinds usually available in retail markets.

Fat-free or nonfat milk: Still informally called “skim milk” by some, though the term has disappeared from most labels. It contains the whey and casein of milk with none of the butterfat, and is fortified with vitamins A and D. Proportionally it contains more lactose than any other form of fresh milk. (The proportion of lactose decreases with every increase in milkfat content, so that heavy cream contains only minute amounts.) It also curdles more easily with the heat of cooking. When it comes from well-managed herds of cows producing a lot of protein in the milk, it can be quite satisfying. The fat-free milk from large commercial dairies, however, is at best indifferent tasting. There are versions with added nonfat dry milk solids, which in my opinion just plaster an extraneous cheesiness over dull-tasting milk. Note that they have more lactose than plain skim milk.

All other gradations manufactured by large commercial processors are based on fat-free milk homogenized with certain standardized percentages of milkfat.

  • Low-fat milk: Made by homogenizing fat-free milk and cream to 0.5 percent milkfat content. Fortified with vitamins A and D.
  • Reduced-fat milk: Usually made by homogenizing fat-free milk and cream to 1 percent, 1.5 percent, or 2 percent milkfat content. Fortified with vitamins A and D.
  • Whole milk: The designation “whole,” though legally sanctioned, is misleading inasmuch as the milk has been separated by centrifuge and recombined to an arbitrary standard. In most states, it means a mixture of nonfat milk and cream homogenized to 3.25 percent milkfat content. Fortified with vitamin D. 

Buying Cream 

Cream, as processed for mass distribution, is also usually homogenized, but not as universally as milk. The unhomogenized kind, in all gradations, is much creamier-tasting. On standing for a while, it will develop a layer of skim milk at the bottom, clearly visible when the cream is sold in glass. This is not a defect but a sign that the cream retains milkfat globules large enough to separate from the thinner milk, not having been crushed to a fraction of their original size through homogenization.

Today’s usual retail-store choices — nearly always ultrapasteurized — are:

  • Half-and-half: A term with no uniform meaning. Long ago it hazily designated a mixture of half milk, half cream. Modern percentages range from 10.5 to 18 percent milkfat in different states, or even in the same state as processed by different manufacturers. Note that percentages are only sometimes stated on labels. Nearly all half-and-half is homogenized. I hope it isn’t necessary to say that the product brazenly labeled “nonfat half-and-half” in supermarkets is utterly unrelated to the real stuff and should not be used in any of my recipes.
  • Light cream: The least precise of all designations; ranges from 18 to 30 percent milkfat. Thus the terms “half-and-half” and “light cream” can overlap in meaning. If milkfat percentages don’t appear on labels, trial and error is the only way to tell how rich or light local brands of half-and-half or light cream are. Often homogenized.
  • Heavy cream: Must contain at least 36 percent milkfat; anything richer is very rare. Often homogenized.

Milk in many gradations is also sold with value-added features such as lactose reduction. In consequence, dairy shelves are filled with a huge number of products that, if you believe the marketing moguls, represent a wonderful diversity of choice inviting cooks to exploit innumerable subtle differences in the kitchen. In my opinion, they add up to the kind of niche-marketing-gone-hogwild spectacle that you see in the toothpaste aisle. I don’t suggest buying any kinds from supermarkets except whole milk and heavy cream (sometimes light cream or half-and-half ). When unhomogenized, truly whole milk, good skim milk, and nonultrapasteurized cream are available to cooks everywhere without search missions to expensive specialty food shops, then we can start congratulating ourselves on choice. 




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