Should whole, 2%, 1%, or skim milk be used in 100-year-old recipes?

Milk 5

Do you even get a question that stumps you? Well, I recently did. A friend asked whether whole, 2%, 1%, or skim milk should be used when making the hundred-year-old recipes that I post on this blog.

I replied that I use whatever kind of milk I have in my refrigerator–and that they all seem to work just fine. But, the question kept nagging at me. None of the milk varieties that are readily available today are exactly the same as the milk of a hundred years ago.

Cream floated on the top of milk a hundred years ago. Homogenization to prevent the separation of the cream from the milk was not widely available to until the 1920’s and 1930’s. Consumers may have stirred the cream into the milk before using–but they also may have skimmed much of the cream off for other uses before using the milk for cooking. Also, some consumers may have purchased semi-skim milk since farmers occasionally skimmed the cream off the milk to make butter before selling.

I have seen a few hundred-year-old recipes that call for “rich milk.” I take this to mean that the milk is creamier than most. This suggests to me that the recipe is calling for milk from cattle breeds that produce particularly high levels of cream (Jersey, Guernsey), but it might refer to whole milk.

A hundred years ago, there was wide variation from area to area in whether milk was pasteurized.  Unpasteurized milk was used rural areas, as well as in many towns and cities. Commercial pasteurization began in the 1890’s. In 1907, Chicago was the first U.S. city to require it;  in 1947, Michigan was the first state to mandate it.

The differences in the diets of the cows a hundred-years-ago affected the taste of the milk. The cows ate a diet that varied across the course of the year –  pasture during the warm-weather months; hay, corn, and oats during the winter months.  Growing up on a dairy farm, I can clearly remember how the taste of the milk changed each spring when the cows first went out to pasture.

Whew, there are so many things to think about. I still don’t know  whether whole, 2%, 1%, or skim milk is the closest to the milk called for in hundred-year-old recipes. But, I’m going to quit worrying about it, and start cooking.

62 thoughts on “Should whole, 2%, 1%, or skim milk be used in 100-year-old recipes?

  1. When I was a child 70 years ago, we had milk delivered to our front porch in a small town in West Tennessee. The milk was pasteurized but not homogenized. I wish I could remember how my folks dealt with the cream on top. Before long, all of the milk was homogenized.

    I like the new picture in your header, just as beautiful as the last one.

    1. It’s interesting that your family used to get milk that was pasteurized but not homogenized. There’s a natural food store near where I live that sells that type of milk–but I can’t remember ever seeing it when I was younger.

      It’s nice to hear that you like the photo. The header photos are pictures of the farm in Pennsylvania that my grandmother lived on when she was teen in the early 1900s. I have four pictures (spring, summer, fall, winter) that I’m rotating through as the seasons change. I started using these header photos back when I used to post Grandma’s diary entries a hundred years to the day after she wrote them, After I posted the last diary entry, I decided to continue using the photos, even though the focus of the blog shifted, because they remind me of simpler times.

  2. Yep just keep cooking! That’s a good attitude or you might go down a rabbit hole to completely cook it the same way back then. Remember, you do “modernize” recipes for today, so no need to fret about that. 🙂

    1. That’s a very good point. I’m not cooking on a wood stove. and have updated many aspects of the recipes, so I shouldn’t fret over small stuff like the type of milk. 🙂

  3. I seriously don’t think it makes a difference in most things,I have learned that if you are making cheese you want fresh farm milk that has not been homogenized. If its homogenized it will not form cheese curds. I too remember when cows went out to pasture in the spring. And if they got into garlic that milk wasn’t used for drinking!! lol

    1. Whew, I won’t want to drink the milk either after the cows ate garlic. 🙂 I’ve never made cheese, but it’s on my list of things that I want to try. It’s good to know that homogenized milk doesn’t work for making cheese.

  4. I hadn’t ever really thought about it, but even though milk wasn’t rated as skim, 1%, 2% or whole “back in the day”, there was a lot of difference in it for all the reasons you stated!

    1. Even whole milk was much less standardized back then. The percentage of fat in the milk would vary depending upon the season, what the cows were eating, the breed, etc.

  5. Isn’t that interesting that you could taste the difference in milk in the spring when cows returned to the grass! When our milk was delivered 50 years ago you had to be careful that birds didn’t peck the tin tops off before you brought it in …I guess they were after the cream.

    1. LOL – what a fun story about the birds. They might have found the shiny tops interesting. I’m thinking about how much parakeets enjoy mirrors and other shiny objects in their cage – so maybe other types of birds would be attracted to metal tops.

    2. Oh! I remember that too! Yes, my mother made special little ‘cages’ for the milkman to pop over the bottle so the tits didn’t get a free meal. And you’re right about that too. The rich cream always floated to the top.

  6. I just called my aunt — age 90 — to inquire. She and my mother used to carry milk home in pails from their grandparents’ farm. She said that they would churn first, then save some cream for whipping. The rest was stirred together — at least as far as she could remember.

    She said she thought the “rich milk” you mentioned would be what we know as half-and-half. When they were making something like a rice pudding, they would use milk with cream stirred into it. It is true that different breeds provide different milk. When I found a dairy with an all-Jersey herd outside San Antonio, and tried their milk, I couldn’t believe it. Their skim tasted like a good whole milk. It didn’t have that watery consistency and almost bluish cast that some skim has.

    1. Thanks for checking with her. I’m guessing that her experiences are very typical. And, it’s really helpful to know that rich milk is similar to half and half–I would have totally messed up any recipe that called for it.

  7. I always use whole milk. I don’t like the flavor or texture of others and since the difference in calories is negligible, I see no point in using low fat ones.
    I would assume that the milk back then was still richer than whole milk today, despite the fact it wasn’t homogenized, though unless we’re talking about large quantities, I don’t think it could make a big difference. In case it seems that it would I suggest to add 1 Tbs heavy cream to 1 cup milk.

    1. I agree that the difference in fat (cream) content really isn’t a a very large amount across the various whole, low fat, and skim milk options. There definitely would have been more variation in the percentage of fat in whole milk back then. Now processing plants standardize the amount.

  8. My memories of milk 50 years ago are of pasteurized, non-homogenised milk. I remember excitement and discussion over homogenized milk . Quite a lot of older people, like my grandmother, didn’t like homogenized. They thought it was too rich. It would be fun to taste seasonal changes in milk. Most milk these days is fairly bland, no matter if it is whole or 1%.

    1. It’s interesting that your grandmother thought that homogenized milk was too rich. I wonderful if they used the cream on the top in tea or coffee (or in recipes), and then typically drank milk with a lower fat content.

  9. I’m a dairy farm girl, too, so this whole discussion brings back lots of memories. We’d shake up the bottle before pouring milk on cereal but still have flecks of cream evident. My sister and I wouldn’t drink milk in restaurants because it didn’t taste like “dad’s milk.”

    1. Your comment reminds me of how I won’t drink milk at school when I was in elementary school because it didn’t taste right (or as you described it, didn’t taste like “Dad’s milk.”)

  10. I find milk does taste different in different parts of the country. PA milk tastes much better than Texas (too hot for cows!). Penn State milk is the best. I always drink a bottle when I go there.

  11. That is a great question. It is very interesting to read your responses. As long as the milk works in your recipe today, it is the right milk.

  12. Great question. I guess it depends on what your goal is? If it is to replicate exactly then use the closest type of milk today that is like 1916. If it is to enjoy to your taste then do what works.

    1. I hadn’t thought about it quite that way, but you’re absolutely right that it is important to consider the goal when thinking which kind of milk should be used.

  13. I can still taste the spring-change in the milk, even today! I recall my grandfather’s cows’ milk being rather thin-tasting. Interesting question and almost no way to know the answer. There was likely lots of variation in milk from farm to farm and perhaps the baker’s reputation for her baked-goods varied with it!

    1. It’s interesting to think about how, in years gone by, the variation in milk from farm to farm might have led to differences in the quality of baked goods from one baker to the next.

  14. I’ve debated this question with myself for longer than I care to say. Finally, since we drink 2%, I decided that I’d use that in my cooking but I keep whole milk frozen in 1/2 cup portions for baking. It may not make a difference but at least I feel I made a decision. 🙂

  15. We sometimes buy unhomoginized milk from a local market. I think that the cream comes off in the first couple of pours, even though I shake it up well. Pretty sure that the rest is pretty much 2%. Or skim.

  16. It never occurred to me that milk might taste different depending on the kind of pasture on which the cows were feeding. It makes perfect sense, though. That’s exactly what happens with bees depending on the kind of flower they’ve been pollinating. (Admittedly, milking a bee isn’t easy). 🙂

    1. I like your analogy. Honey from bees that have been pollinating buckwheat is very different from the honey of bees that have been pollinating clover. It’s very similar with cows. Historically I think that the biggest change in their diet came when then went from eating grains, silage and hay during the winter months to the fresh spring grasses on a pasture in the spring. There is a very definite change in the taste of milk at that point in time.

  17. Growing up in the countryside, I got to taste the very best milk from the cow we had. The first time I drank store-bought milk I thought it was tasteless and the fat percentage was quite confusing to me. In the end I settled for semi-skimmed milk, but sometimes I tend to use the full-fat one in baking, I could swear that, with muffins at least, they become a lot fluffier and tastier. But maybe that’s just me.

    1. It makes sense to me that the muffins would have a different texture if whole milk is used. I also find the fat percentages confusing, and sometimes I think that something has been lost in the process of creating a standardized product.

  18. The milk was always creamed off the top by my mother (or whoever grabbed the milk first up to have ‘cream’ on their cereal) and so the rest of the milk would have been lower in fat. Good point then that the resultant milk was probably closer to 1% or 2% fat, not full cream. I agree, rather than be concerned as to what works best, just use whatever is in the fridge and start cooking! 🙂

    1. Your comment reminds me of how wonderful cream is on cereal. I almost never eat it for all the obvious health reasons, but cream on cereal is heavenly. 🙂

  19. Such an interesting post. I’m with you and usually use whatever milk I have on hand unless the recipe is one that calls for heavy cream. In that case the butter fat is usually needed for the recipe to work correctly.

    1. I agree – If a recipe calls for cream I generally use cream. My one exception is that if a creamed soup recipe calls for cream, I’ll sometimes substitute milk for some or all of the the cream. The soup is less rich, but I tend to think that it’s a little healthier.

  20. Such an interesting post! I had never really thought about that before. I wonder how many recipes I use that taste completely different from when they were originally written based on changes in our food sources. Interesting to think about.

    1. I’m intrigued by differences in food across the years. Agricultural practices and processing methods have changed many foods to a certain extent.

  21. What an interesting post!
    It makes so much sense that the time of year, the type of grass or feed, the type of water would make such a difference. I am a fan of single malt scotch, and have learned that the location of the distillary, the type of water make such a difference.
    Enjoyed reading the comment section, too

    1. It’s wonderful to hear that you enjoyed this post. Like you, I’ve learned so much from the comments about what milk was like years ago.

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