Even the best food could use a dash of ones and zeros. Geek out with us as we explore the intersection of food and technology this month.
You might be wondering: Why would I ever use a dry, cakey powder instead of milk, aka nature's perfect food? Powder can't soggy up a bowl of cereal. It can't quench chocolate chip cookie-induced thirst. But its original use—and one that still works—was to reconstitute it for liquid milk, especially in places where buying it fresh (and clean) isn't an option.
Milk powder was one of the earliest food-technology discoveries, first started in the early 1800s by Russian scientists, but possibly even cited by Marco Polo. Today, food scientists use a process called spray drying, where liquid milk gets sprayed into a sealed chamber filled with hot air that turns it to powder practically instantly. It's the same method used on those powdered drink mixes and egg whites.
Besides the nutrition found in its liquid form, milk powder can help add structure to a variety of foods when cooking. It also speeds up the Maillard reaction, which is the process that gives roast chicken and toasted bread their brown, crackling crusts. Give milk powder a chance in four foods you already know and love.
① Ice Cream
New York ice cream maker Nick Morgenstern doesn't use eggs to stabilize in his ice cream—he uses a high-quality milk powder. Ample Hills Creamery, also in NYC, uses both skim milk powder and egg yolks. A watery ice cream base leads to unpleasant ice crystals in the finished product, so using milk powder prevents that, instead helping to give it a creamy texture. Channel Morgenstern and make his Parmesan ice cream the next time you go the homemade ice cream route.
② Hot Chocolate
Though we typically start from-scratch hot chocolate with silky whole milk, there's plenty to love about the easy-access powdered packets of your childhood. Stock a jar with homemade hot chocolate mix for a just-add-water method by adding one cup of confectioners' sugar and half a cup of cocoa powder for every cup of powdered milk, plus spices like cinnamon and cayenne to make things interesting. Or, if you're sticking to the saucepan route, add it to your mug for an even creamier cuppa cocoa.
Wylie Dufresne uses a trick he learned from Chicago chef (and previous wd~50 teammate) Mike Sheerin, who picked it up from packaged sausages. Milk powder helps keep the meat patty together, giving it structural integrity without the need to smash ground meat into oblivion. (Get the recipe for Dufresne's kombu-spiked burger.)
Milk powder helps tenderize gluten formation, making a softer loaf more like the puffy supermarket kind. Whole milk powder is ideal here, rather than the more common nonfat kind, since it's the milk fat that does the job. It's used over liquid milk, because there are enzymes that stop yeast from making the bread come to life. Try it in this cinnamon raisin bread, a low-lift loaf that breakfast dreams are made of—that is, if you don't get lost in the mesmerizing swirls first.
Some claim milk powder does other wives'-tale things like treat an insect bite and relieve a sunburn, but try those at your own risk. Give it a go: A side-by-side hot chocolate taste test can't be so bad. At the very least, chalk it up to science.
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