There are countless types of milk out there. And it seems like each day there’s another new type landing in your grocery store aisle. It may or may not be confusing… After all, it’s only milk, right?
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Types of Milk - Differences
Yes, it’s milk. We drink it from day 1, literally. We use it almost every day. Drink it on its own? Sure! Add it to your coffee or tea? Yes, please! Pair it with oatmeal or breakfast cereal? Yum! Make countless sauces, soups, puddings, or desserts? Delicious! You even need milk to bake many cakes and breads! Milk is so versatile it’s a staple in any kitchen, any household. And, with all of its types - especially the non-dairy ones - knowing their differences can help you decide the most suitable for your needs!
Dairy Milk vs Non-Dairy Milk
Dairy milk is any milk produced by any mammals - it could be a cow, goat, sheep, buffalo, horse, or camel. The most popular and widely available is cow’s milk. Hence, cow’s milk is sometimes referred to as just “milk”. On the other hand, non-dairy milk (sometimes labeled as plant-based milk or vegan milk) is any milk made with fruits, nuts, grains, or seeds; usually by grinding. Though not having the exact same nutritional profile, non-dairy milk is a great alternative for those who are allergic to dairy milk, lactose-intolerant, or choose to live a vegan lifestyle.
Types of Milk - Dairy (by Fat Content)
Whole milk (or simply "regular" milk) consists of approximately 3.5% fat content. This type of milk is considered purer than most other types. Though it has been pasteurized and (most likely) homogenized, the fat ratio is the same as unprocessed or raw milk. Whole milk is the "all-purpose" milk. It’s the milk we all know about and have all tasted before. Thick, rich, and creamy, it’s perfect for almost anything you can think of. If a recipe doesn’t specify the type of milk, whole milk is probably the one you’re going to use.
Make my delicious banana muffins and banana bread with whole milk!
Reduced-fat milk is sometimes labeled as 2% milk. As the name suggests, it has undergone a fat-removal process, leaving only 2% of its fat content. This results in a milder taste. Luckily, this type of milk still retains some of its richness. It’s the perfect milk if you want to cut your fat intake without too much compromise on the milk flavor. Oh, and the smooth texture is also ideal to accompany your British-style cup of tea.
Often confused with reduced-fat milk, low-fat milk is slightly different. This type of milk has only an approximate 1% fat content. The consistency is a lot thinner, with a very mild milk flavor. Due to its significantly lower fat content, it’s often used in low-calorie recipes.
Skim milk (or sometimes called fat-free milk) has undergone a skimming process (aka cream/fat removal from the milk). It has up to approximately 0.15% of fat content with the same nutrients as whole milk. It’s by far the lightest type of dairy milk. Some people find it bland in taste, though I’d argue it still has a bit of the milk flavor we all love. It is a good choice to make if you want to get the whole milk goodness without the excess fat.
Types of Milk - Dairy (by Process)
Raw milk is… well, raw. It’s literally straight from the cow (or goat, or whatever), which means it’s not pasteurized. Due to safety concerns, it’s not widely available which means that you're not going to find it at your local grocery store. You see, raw milk (or unpasteurized milk) has not been heated to kill all the harmful bacteria. In some places, selling it to consumers is considered illegal, though other places allow the sale of raw milk directly from a farm. Sure, raw milk is controversial. There’s a whole lot of debate about the pros and cons of consuming it on a daily basis. Some organizations don't recommend (or even forbid) consuming raw milk as it might be harmful. On the other hand, raw milk enthusiasts argue that it’s way more nutritious than pasteurized milk.
Most milk that you find in the grocery store has been processed, both pasteurized and homogenized. And it’s not a bad thing, really. The term “processed” in foods and drinks sometimes screams horror for many of us - unhealthy and harmful. However, in the dairy milk world, processed milk is actually considered much safer, and better.
- Pasteurization - Simply put, pasteurization makes milk safer to drink. It is the process of heating milk and rapidly cooling it down to kill certain harmful bacteria. To be clear, this process doesn’t kill all microorganisms in milk. It’s intended to eliminate some bacteria and to help extend the shelf life of the milk. There are several pasteurization methods, with one of the most common methods being flash pasteurization (HTST or High-Temperature Short-Time pasteurization). Milk pasteurized in this way usually lasts for 2-3 weeks.
- Homogenization is an entirely different and separate process that (in most cases) comes after pasteurization. During this process, the fat molecules are broken down to a very small size so they remain suspended evenly throughout the milk, preventing separation and the fat rising to the top. Luckily, it’s a mechanical process that doesn’t involve any additives. This process creates more appealing milk with longer shelf life.
Traditionally, buttermilk was the liquid left in a churn after making butter out of cultured cream. During this process, the buttermilk would develop healthy and natural cultures. These cultures allowed the buttermilk to be kept for longer than raw milk in the days before refrigeration. This made it a good product to have on hand and to use in cooking.
Modern buttermilk is still a cultured milk but instead of it being a by-product of churning butter it is made as a stand-alone product by the dairy industry. This buttermilk, available in cartons at your local grocer, has a thicker consistency and tangier taste than traditional buttermilk.
Modern buttermilk can be drunk straight as well as being a popular ingredient to use in cooking and baking. For cooking, the buttermilk can be used to marinate certain meats such as chicken and pork. The acid in the milk helps to tenderize the meat as well as keeping it moist.
In baking, the acid in the buttermilk reacts with the raising agent, such as baking soda, to produce carbon dioxide which then leavens the baked goods. This easy to make chocolate cake recipe and honeycomb muffins recipe use buttermilk as the dairy ingredient.
If you can’t buy buttermilk, or just want to try making your own, follow these instructions:
Pour 1 cup of milk into a bowl. Add 2 teaspoons of white vinegar or lemon juice. Let it rest and curdle for 5 minutes.
Then stir and you have buttermilk!
UHT Types of Milk
UHT milk (sometimes referred to as long-life milk) is pasteurized in a certain way, in which the milk is heated to 280°F for at least 2 seconds. Often labeled as ultra-pasteurized milk, this type of milk has the longest unrefrigerated shelf life, 6-9 months. Generally, unless stated otherwise on the label, UHT milk has the same nutrients and fat content as normal processed milk. And you can find this type of milk in the form of whole milk, skim milk and everything in between.
Lactose-free milk is just another milk… except that the lactose has been broken down by adding an enzyme called lactase. This, luckily, doesn’t affect the milk’s taste, texture, and all of its essential nutrients. This type of milk is a great option for those who are lactose-intolerant. FYI, lactose is a type of natural sugar found in milk that some people are unable to digest, triggering digestive problems including vomiting and diarrhea.
Types of Milk - Non-Dairy
Soy Types of Milk
Soy milk is simply created by grinding soaked soybeans in water. Compared to other plant-based milk, it’s one of the most nutritionally similar to cow’s milk. Low in saturated fat and cholesterol, its no wonder it’s one of the most well-known dairy alternatives and is highly popular among vegans. Thick, creamy, and with a mild flavor, it’s very versatile and can be used as a substitute to dairy milk for cooking, baking, such as this easy apple cobbler recipe, even in your coffee. (Yes, it can be foamed!)
Almond milk is made by soaking and grinding the nuts with water. Subtly sweet, incredibly creamy, and nutty, the popularity of almond milk keeps skyrocketing. Just like soy milk, you can use almond milk as a substitute for dairy milk in almost anything.
It’s rich, nutty, and goes really well with pretty much anything. Though it has a few more calories with lower protein than some other types of plant-based milk, it’s really delicious. Perfect for baked goods, and I especially love me a cup of coffee with a splash of hazelnut milk! Delicious!
Cashew milk is a very creamy, full-bodied nut milk. With no strong lingering aftertaste, cashew milk is especially great for cooking sauces and for making delicious summer smoothies. Also, the thickness works like magic in lattes!
Macadamia milk might be the fanciest nut milk out there… Not very widely available as it’s just recently arrived on the vegan milk scene. But, you can make your own by blitzing macadamia nuts with water and straining it through cheesecloth or muslin. Macadamia milk is great for desserts and coffee, it’s the creamiest - silky smooth and quite neutral-tasting!
Not to be confused with coconut water… Coconut milk is made by grinding the white flesh of mature coconuts. The juice is then extracted and (sometimes) diluted with the coconut water. It’s probably one of the most delicious plant-based milk options. Luscious, ultra-creamy, rich, with a sweet and savory coconut-y flavor. It’s incredible for cooking. Use it in my green lentil dahl recipe, curries, gravies, soups, or sauces, or whatever you think needs some richness and extra oomph. It’s also a great alternative to create vegan whipped cream or even ice cream.
Rice milk is usually made with brown rice, ground and mixed with water. It’s one of the most hypoallergenic milk out there, meaning it’s less likely to cause allergies. The consistency, however, is very watery. It doesn’t go so well in your daily cup of coffee or tea. But it is good for cooking and baking. Use it in your oatmeal, sauces, and baking. The flavor is very mild and faintly sweet.
Oat milk has a thick consistency, like soy milk. But, unlike soy milk, it has a more neutral taste. It’s suitable for cooking and baking, for coffees and pancakes! If you follow a gluten-free diet, you might have to carefully check the labels, as oat milk usually has gluten in it. But, yes, there are certified gluten-free oat milks out there!
Hemp milk is made by blitzing crushed and soaked hemp seeds in water. Alongside rice milk, hemp milk is one of the wateriest plant-based milks. Unlike rice milk though, this type of milk has a more earthy flavor and is (surprisingly) creamy! Use it as you would rice milk - for breakfast cereals, sauces, and baking.
Flax milk is made from blending flaxseed in water. Flax milk is slightly thicker than hemp milk, with a nutty taste and less on the earthy side. It has a similar flavor profile to almond milk. It is often available in a sweetened or unsweetened version.
Types of Milk - What is Organic Milk?
The “organic” or “non-GMO” label can be found in numerous milk packaging these days, both dairy and non-dairy. For dairy milk, it means that the milk comes from cows that aren’t given any supplemental hormones or antibiotics and that it’s produced by farmers who use only organic fertilizers and pesticides. Similar to that, organic non-dairy milk simply means the milk is made with organic plants. Perceived as a healthier option, organic milk is usually pricier. And while there might be some concerns regarding safety, both organic and “inorganic” milk is viewed by most people as safe to consume on a daily basis. Moreover, the nutritional content of organic milk is actually almost the same as the regular counterpart.
Recipes with Milk
For delicious cakes and bread recipes that include milk:
- Chocolate Chip Banana Bread - who doesn't love chocolate and banana?!
- Banana Bread - a classic taste that your whole family will love!
- Banana Muffins - kids love making this recipe!
- Honeycomb Muffins - honeycomb and chocolate-y goodness!
Types of Milk - In Conclusion
Dairy or non-dairy… organic or standard… whole, 2%, 1%, or skim… soy or almond… Now that you know the difference of every type of milk, hopefully this will help you decide which milk to write down on your next shopping list!
Good article. I had a recipe that used oat milk and wasn’t sure what it was.