Food 101: Know Your Milks

I know what you’re thinking…how much can I really need to know about milk? It’s milk! While back in the day milk was milk, there are now a lot more milk options. There are also certain types of milk better for certain types of applications. Hopefully this post will be a nice little guide for what milk is best for what and which can be substituted for another.

Cow’s Milk (whole milk, 2%, skim): This is your standard milk. The different names refer to the fat content of the milk, with whole milk having the most and skim having the least. I’ve found that whole milk and 2% are pretty much interchangeable in recipes, but I wouldn’t recommend using skim for cooking.

Did someone say milk?

Did someone say milk?

Heavy Cream/Whipping Cream: Cream is basically just heavy duty milk. It has even more fat in it than whole milk. Both heavy cream and whipping cream can be used to make whipped cream. They are basically the same thing, but heavy cream has a bit more fat in it than whipping cream does. Both work perfectly well though, so no need to stress out about which one to pick, unless you’re really concerned about that extra percentage of fat.

Light Cream: To be honest, I’m not entirely sure why light cream exists. I don’t think I’ve ever encountered a recipe that calls for it. I suppose if you’re trying to cut down on calories you could substitute it for heavy cream in sauce recipes. But DO NOT try to use it for whipped cream. It will not work right.

Half and Half: Half and half is pretty much just equal parts milk and cream. There aren’t a ton of recipes that call for it, but if you encounter one and don’t have half and half on hand you can easily make your own by combining milk and heavy cream. For example if a recipe calls for a cup of half and half just use ½ cup cream and ½ cup milk.

Buttermilk: Erik covered buttermilk pretty well in his Cheat Code post about it, but for the sake of summary it’s basically milk that is higher in acidity than regular milk and will give your baked goods a certain tang, as well as help to make them browner.  If you make a lot of pancakes, you’ll want to keep buttermilk on hand.

Soy Milk: Soy milk isn’t really milk…it’s really more like soy water, since it’s made from soaking and then grinding soy beans in water. Soy milk sounds better though. As long as you don’t get one of the flavored soy milks it can generally be substituted for cow milk in recipes you would like to make vegan.

Almond Milk: Almond milk is also not technically milk. It is made from ground almonds. While you can probably get away with substituting it for cow milk in sweet recipes, but I would be hesitant to do so for savory ones. I once used it in my mac & cheese and it was not great. It has too much of its own distinct flavor that shows up where you don’t necessarily want it. You can substitute it for coconut milk in recipes though.

Coconut Milk: Coconut milk is not the liquid that is inside coconuts. That is coconut water. Coconut milk comes from the grated meat (the white part) of coconuts. Coconut milk is used a lot in Southeast Asian, South Asian and Caribbean cuisine.

Evaporated Milk: Evaporated milk is milk that has had 60% of the water removed. This makes it shelf stable and allows it to take up less room. Since it’s had a lot of the water removed it has a more milky flavor than regular milk. There aren’t really any real substitutes for evaporated milk, but if you’re feeling ambitious you can make your own by cooking down regular milk. You could also try substituting powdered milk and just not adding as much water as recommended to make regular milk, but the flavor may not be the same.

Sweetened Condensed Milk: Like evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk has had some of its water removed. However it has also had sugar added which makes it much thicker and sweeter than evaporated milk is. There are no substitutions for sweetened condensed milk…you’d have to make your own which, at that point it’s just easier to go to the store and buy the can.

NOTE: it is easy to get evaporated and sweetened condensed milk confused in the store because they both come in the same sized cans and are often right next to each other. Make sure you are picking up the correct product when purchasing because the two are not interchangeable.


Powdered Milk: Powdered milk is evaporated milk taken to the extreme – it has had all of its moisture removed. This makes it super shelf stable and can be a good thing to keep on hand for emergencies. It doesn’t have a ton of culinary uses though, so you likely won’t encounter it in recipes. Though it can be useful in making hot cocoa mixes.


Posted on July 21, 2015, in Food 101 and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.


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