Appears in
Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets

By Darra Goldstein

Published 2015

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milk in the strictly biological sense is both the first and the most chemically complex food encountered by any mammal in a lifetime of eating. Cow’s milk, like that of less familiar dairy animals including goats, sheep, and water buffaloes, has literally innumerable components that take on still more complexities in handling and cooking. For this reason, it can play enormously diverse roles in making all kinds of sweets.

Simple gravity easily splits unhomogenized cow’s milk into two parts. A lactose-rich water-based solution (whey) holding suspended particles of a major milk protein called casein sinks to the bottom as “skim milk” in any container. A top layer containing the much less dense milk-fat globules along with a small amount of the basic solution rises to the top as “cream.” See cream. Both parts can be manipulated into other forms through means including the action of lactic acid bacteria and/or some enzymes, possibly combined with heat. See buttermilk; cheese, fresh; sour cream; and yogurt. Agitating cream (or whole milk, or yogurt) under the right conditions produces butter along with a wheylike solution, true buttermilk. Various Old World peoples had mastered these and other transformations in ancient (in fact, prehistoric) times. Bacterially cultured products flourished from the Balkans eastward; concentrates of boiled-down milk were beloved in India; and simple unripened cheeses were familiar from northeastern to northwestern Europe.