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Alternative Milks

By Cook's Illustrated Published July 2005

Can lactose-free or nonrefrigerated boxed milk be substituted for regular milk in recipes?

Whether it's health restrictions or just plain unpreparedness, there may come a time when the only milk you have access to is an "alternative milk," such as lactose-free or nonrefrigerated boxed milk. We wanted to find out if either of these products can be substituted for regular milk in recipes.

Initially, several members of the test kitchen staff made faces at the prospect of cooking with these untraditional milks, but ultimately they admitted to being curious about the potential results. We pitted Hood whole milk (our local "regular" brand) against whole milk versions of Lactaid and Parmalat in three applications: scones, a yellow layer cake, and a béchamel sauce.

Straight from the carton, Lactaid tends to have a slightly sweeter flavor than regular milk. This is because of the added lactase, an enzyme that breaks down lactose (the sugar found in milk) into two sweeter-tasting simple sugars that lactose-intolerant individuals can easily digest. Not surprisingly, the scones and yellow cake made with Lactaid tasted sweeter than those made with regular milk, and some tasters preferred them. On the other hand, the béchamel made with Lactaid was booed for having an "odd flavor" that one taster described as "kind of rank" and several others simply found "too sweet."

Parmalat, a shelf-stable boxed milk that can be kept for up to six months unopened and unrefrigerated because of treatment with a special ultra-high-heat pasteurization process, lacks the fresh taste of regular milk and has a flavor profile closer to that of cooked milk. Nonetheless, tasters found that scones and cake made with Parmalat were very similar in flavor to those made with regular whole milk. A few people noticed a slightly off flavor in the béchamel made with Parmalat, calling it "funky," "musty," and "tangy." Most tasters, however, thought the béchamel made with Parmalat was just fine.

To sum up, sweet baked goods made with lactose-free or boxed milk are just as good as—and some think even better than—those made with fresh milk. In savory applications, boxed milk is OK if fresh milk isn't available, but avoid using lactose-free milk unless a sweet-salty result is your intended goal.