In Praise of Skim Milk

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[Photographs: Vicky Wasik]

If you dabble much in the food world, you've likely heard the phrase "Fat carries flavor." Though true enough in a general sense, this mantra has also encouraged the fat philosophy that more is always better. For starters, that's simply false—there's a reason we don't pour cream over our cereal in the morning. But even when used judiciously, fat doesn't always carry flavor; sometimes it can dull, mute, or outright obscure it. Just imagine a scoop of lemon sorbet versus lemon gelato.

So when our editor Miranda Kaplan told me she was thinking about dumping the skim milk left in her fridge by some holiday houseguests, I threw myself between the jug and the drain. While skim milk may not be everyone's first choice as a beverage, it's a remarkable workhorse in dessert. That's because milk is rarely a primary source of fat in a recipe, making the difference between whole and skim almost negligible in the face of heavy hitters like butter, chocolate, cream, and egg yolks.

To put that in context, the difference between whole and skim milk is eight grams of fat per cup, working out to +/- 0.66 grams of fat per serving in recipes for muffins, cake, or pie, which typically serve 12. Which is to say: no big deal either way. There are certainly recipes that rely on whole milk for fat, flavor, and body (think ice cream and flan), but for general-purpose baking, it's not nearly as essential as you'd suppose. To better illustrate that point, here are eight of my favorite recipes that don't really care what kind of milk you have on hand.

Dark Chocolate Cream Pie

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With a quarter pound of dark chocolate, eight large egg yolks, a half cup of high-fat Dutch cocoa, and a supremely buttery crust, my Double-Chocolate Cream Pie is plenty rich whether you opt for whole milk or skim. Strangely enough, it actually tastes darker when you use skim milk, because milk solids have a way of muting chocolate's flavor.

English Muffins

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Look, some of the best breads in the world are made with water, so there's no reason to feel that using skim milk means cutting any corners with chewy English Muffins. Plus, skim and whole milk contain nearly equal amounts of lactose, so your English muffins will griddle up just as deliciously brown either way.

Homemade Fudgsicles and Pudding Pops

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As in chocolate cream pie, skim milk boosts our perception of dark chocolate in Homemade Fudgsicles by reducing the overall quantity of milk solids, making the pops' flavor seem more intense.

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Skim milk also gives both DIY Fudgsicles and Homemade Pudding Pops a lighter consistency that feels more refreshing—which is why we eat popsicles in the first place.

Yeast-Raised Waffles

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Because whole and skim milk are equally good water- and lactose-delivery systems, my Overnight Brown-Butter Yeast-Raised Waffles will turn out chewy no matter which you use. Besides, it's the inclusion of brown butter that makes them so tender and rich.

Sweet Potato Pie

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Again, with equal amounts of lactose to offer, skim and whole milk will both develop the same toasty toffee flavors during the reduction stage for my Silky Sweet Potato Pie. The skim version is lighter, to be sure, by about two grams of fat per slice. But, with three whole eggs and six ounces of heavy cream, it's still plenty rich.

Classic Blueberry Muffins

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In these old-school muffins, richness comes from butter, both in the batter itself and slathered on the finished product. Milk's primary role in Classic Blueberry Muffins is hydration, turning a pile of dry ingredients into a batter, facilitating gluten development to provide structure, and generating steam for the muffins' rise. You'll get those benefits regardless of whether you choose whole milk or skim, so use whatever you have on hand.

Butterscotch Pudding

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Thanks to malted milk powder, loads of egg yolks, and a handful of white chocolate, my favorite Butterscotch Pudding is creamy and rich, with or without whole milk. For me, skim is actually preferable, because it provides the same light-bodied consistency I loved in stovetop Jell-O pudding as a kid.

To reiterate, my affection for skim milk has nothing to do with cutting calories—did you see how many whipped cream recipes I published last year?! Rather, it's about acknowledging milk's role as a water/lactose delivery system rather than a source of fat in most desserts. Sure, there will always be ice creams and oven-baked custards that depend on every last gram of dairy fat, and such recipes will surely make that clear by calling for "whole milk." But when a recipe of mine calls for milk, know that I'm not making a concession when I say that "any percentage will do."