‘Got milk?’ covers a wide range of options these days

March 10, 2023

It has become very crowded in the dairy aisles of our grocery stores, most notably in the milk section. Perhaps we should place quotation marks around the word milk, as so many of these products are plant-based, not sourced from cows or goats or buffalo.

Historically, milk referred to the product we collected from cows, which in our ancestors’ times were kept on the family farm.

As it stands now, there are easily a dozen different products called “milk,” starting with the original – whole milk that has been pasteurized and homogenized to meet food safety regulations. At about 3.5 percent fat content, this is the highest-calorie option on the shelf, next to the 2 percent, 1 percent and skim milk (sometimes labeled nonfat). In my experience, the texture and taste decrease as the fat content is reduced.

In addition to fat, another ingredient often removed from milk is lactose or milk sugar, to which many people are intolerant because it causes digestive symptoms. Many kinds of dairy products have been treated to remove lactose, including milk, cream, sour cream and cottage cheese. Fortunately, the removal process does not in any way change the flavor or texture of the food.

Buttermilk is oddly named, as it is not made with butter, but by adding an acidifier to milk. Because of its sharp tang, people rarely drink buttermilk on its own, unless they have just won the Indianapolis 500. Sweetened condensed milk begins as whole cow’s milk. It is heated to evaporate almost all the water, then heavily sweetened. Sold in cans, this is a common ingredient in many dessert recipes.

A well-known ingredient in Asian and African cuisines is coconut milk. The variety highest in fat and thickest in texture is called coconut cream; it is used exclusively in recipes, not as a beverage. While also made from grated coconut flesh, coconut milk is thinner with a higher water content.

The next “milks” are plant-based concoctions, primarily a combination of water mixed with nuts, seeds or grains. One of the earliest arrivals in this category was soy milk. Manufacturers begin with raw soybeans that are steamed, spilt and de-hulled. Next, the beans are cooked in water, then ground and strained multiple times to remove insoluble fibers. Like cow’s milk, soy milk is homogenized to evenly distribute fat particles before the milk is packaged under aseptic conditions.

Other popular nut milks are made with almonds and cashews through a similar process. The nuts are soaked overnight in water, then ground and blended with more water to reach the desired consistency. As you may imagine, the flavor of both has hints of nuttiness, and they can be found in both sweetened and unsweetened varieties. Both are fortified with calcium and vitamin D, adding nutrients that are already found in cow’s milk.

While most of us will add milk to our bowl of breakfast oatmeal, we may not realize that those healthy oats can also be used to make milk. Just like soy, almond or cashew “milks,” oat milk is made from rolled oats that are soaked in water, then milled into a fine consistency. Some varieties add sweeteners, flavorings, and fortifications like calcium and vitamins. Because of the carbohydrate base of oat milk, it tends to be higher in calories than other choices.

Which milk is the best choice? The answer, of course, is, “It depends.” If you have a nut allergy, containers of cashew or almond milk are not for you. If you have lactose intolerance, you can select from various non-dairy alternatives. The best answer might be to try several of the available options to see which flavor and consistency best suits your taste.


1 T white vinegar
15 T whole milk

Place vinegar in a glass measuring cup. Add milk to the 1 C line and stir. Set aside for about 5 minutes before using in your recipe. Store in a sealed container in the refrigerator for up to one week. Shake well before using.

Coconut Rice Pudding

13.5 oz can coconut milk
1 C sweetened condensed milk
3/4 C whole milk
1 C arborio rice
1/2 t cinnamon
1/2 vanilla bean
grated nutmeg, for garnish
shredded coconut (optional)

Combine milks, rice and cinnamon in a medium saucepan. Slit the vanilla bean and scrape the seeds into the pot. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring often, until rice is tender, about 20 minutes. Pour pudding into a bowl and cover tightly with plastic wrap, making sure the plastic directly touches the surface of the pudding. Refrigerate for at least one hour before serving. To serve, sprinkle dessert bowls of pudding with grated nutmeg and shredded coconut (if using). Yield: 6 servings.

Buttermilk Pancakes

2 C flour
3 T sugar
1 t baking powder
1 t baking soda
1/2 t salt
2 T butter
2 C buttermilk
1 large egg
1 t vanilla

Whisk together dry ingredients in a mixing bowl; set aside. Put the butter in a medium glass bowl and microwave to melt. Whisk in remaining ingredients; set aside. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and pour in milk mixture. Stir to combine; set aside to rest for about 15 minutes. Preheat the griddle until hot enough for a water droplet to skitter across the surface. Pour 1/4 C batter for each pancake and cook until bubbles cover the top and bottom is lightly browned. Flip and cook another few minutes. Serve immediately. Yield: 12 to 14 pancakes.

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