Label Babel: Buying Milk and Cream

Reader Contribution by Staff

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.

Meanwhile, cooking with milk and cream is best done with the plainest, least fiddled-with versions you can find.

Long-Keeping Milk

Canned milk is a food intended for emergency situations that in some parts of the world ended by taking on gastronomic dimensions of its own. Gail Borden, who introduced a vacuum-evaporation method of condensing and canning heavily sweetened milk shortly before the Civil War, reaped a considerable wartime reward by supplying it on a large scale to the Union Army. A different process perfected in the late 1880s yielded unsweetened evaporated milk. The two new products had a lively success over the next century throughout the industrialized West, where they still command a following. But it was in the Latin American and Asian tropics that they would make their biggest mark. That it didn’t taste like other forms of milk was all to its advantage. The condensed kind, which had intended to be diluted, had (when undiluted) a densely syrupy quality that people greatly enjoyed. Evaporated milk was less sweet and heavy, but also had a sufficiently strong caramelized note to drown out the disliked flavor of unprocessed milk.

In Central and South America, and in Asia, condensed and evaporated milk are primarily used as enrichers of sweetened beverages — for instance, Thai-style iced coffee and tea, or the Latin American equivalents of eggnog. In Latin America, they are also preferred for flans and used in desserts such as the celebrated “three milks,” or tres leches, a cake made with condensed milk, evaporated milk and cream. It is important to realize that in these cases canned milk is not a poor relation of “real” milk but an ingredient prized for its own qualities.

Finally, there are two other forms in which unsoured milk reaches a large clientele: the long-keeping fluid version and the powdered kind. The aseptic technology for long-keeping milk seems to produce something no worse than the prevailing conventional technology — though that isn’t saying much. All of my recipes (except for those using canned milk) will taste better if made with very fresh unhomogenized milk or cream. But many of them can be reasonably managed with mass-produced whole milk, including the long-keeping versions. (I don’t recommend any of the reduced-fat gradations.)

Dried or powdered milk strikes me as the least desirable way you can buy unsoured milk. Its history is bound up with the chronic surpluses confronting milk producers. From the late 19th century on, manufacturers were looking into the possibility of converting unsoured milk into a form still more durable and cheaper to handle than canned milk. The Great Depression and World War II brought about large-scale diversion of milk surpluses, in dried form, to food-assistance programs and international relief agencies. These still are financial mainstays of the industry. Huge amounts also find their way into commercial confectionery, baked goods, canned soups, frozen foods, and many more uses. But for decades, a stubborn drawback discouraged retail sales of dried milk: the difficulty of dissolving the powder quickly and smoothly in cold water. The problem was solved in the mid-1950s by a new technique of getting the powdered grains to aggregate in minute crystals. Millions of consumers took to instant dried milk as a thrifty alternative to fresh milk. The only form of dried milk I ever use is malted-milk powder, which isn’t meant to produce an imitation of fresh milk, and whose caramelized flavors are part of its appeal. 

From Anne Mendelson’s book, Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages. To read more from her fantastic book, check out The Astonishing Story of Real Milk, from our October/November 2011 issue.

Check out more of Anne Mendelson’s fabulous milk recipes from around the world: