Lowfat vs. Nonfat Milk

By Cook's Illustrated Published July 2003

We've all seen those recipes (including our own) that specify what kind of milk to use: whole, low fate, nonfat. But in the end, does it really matter? Could the average palate detect a difference, or are they pretty much interchangeable? We decided to test whole milk (which is 3 1/2 percent fat), 1 percent milk, and skim milk (which must contain less than 1/2 percent fat) in three recipes: pancakes, yellow layer cake, and chocolate pudding. Each recipe originally called for whole milk.

While a couple of very particular tasters could pick out the pancake made with skim milk, the majority could not make out much difference between any of the pancakes. That's good news: You can use whatever you have in your fridge. Not so with the yellow cake. Tasters found the cake made with skim to be dry and tough and the cake made with whole milk to be moist and tender. Surprisingly, the cake made with 1 percent milk was very similar in tenderness to the whole milk cake. Clearly, this cake needs mik with some fat.

The pudding made with skim milk was not by any means a disaster, but it was nowhere near as rich and creamy as the pudding made with either the 1 percent or whole milk. Moreover, the puddings made with the higher-fat milks were thought to taste more chocolatey and decadent, with the whole milk pudding having a distinct velvety mouthfeel. Fat is a flavor carrier, which would explain the boost in flavor.

The conclusion? While skim milk probably won't ruin a recipe, whole milk and even 1 percent milk will make the recipe that much better.