Appears in
On Food and Cooking

By Harold McGee

Published 2004

  • About

Left to itself, fresh whole milk naturally separates into two phases: fat globules clump together and rise to form the cream layer, leaving a fat-depleted phase below. The treatment called homogenization was developed in France around 1900 to prevent creaming and keep the milk fat evenly—homogeneously—dispersed. It involves pumping hot milk at high pressure through very small nozzles, where the turbulence tears the fat globules apart into smaller ones; their average diameter falls from 4 micrometers to about 1. The sudden increase in globule numbers causes a proportional increase in their surface area, which the original globule membranes are insufficient to cover. The naked fat surface attracts casein particles, which stick and create an artificial coat (nearly a third of the milk’s casein ends up on the globules). The casein particles both weigh the fat globules down and interfere with their usual clumping: and so the fat remains evenly dispersed in the milk. Milk is always pasteurized just before or simultaneously with homogenization to prevent its enzymes from attacking the momentarily unprotected fat globules and producing rancid flavors.