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Friday, November 4, 2011

Milk, Cream, and Oil: An ijj History

Growing up, we only ever had milk of the skim variety.  Despite living in a *startlingly* WASPish suburb, it was the only milk I ever knew.  Perhaps this was because my dad was a diabetic and watched his fat intake, or perhaps it was because my mom grew up on a farm and used to regale us with horror stories of fresh cream... I dunno.

Regardless, we only drank skim, and we drank a lot of it.  I remember having to have a glass with supper every evening; coupled with milk on my cereal in the morning, that's at least a couple servings of dairy per day, just from milk.

I also remember having to go to friends' houses and being faced with only 2% milk.  Now, in retrospect the polite thing to have done, would have been to kindly thank them for their hospitality and drink the frickin milk.  I couldn't do it though.  Compared to skim milk, 2% milk quite literally catches in your throat.  It's disgusting.  So, I would try to cover my revulsion while politely saying 'no thanks'.  I'm sure my friends' moms all thought I was to be pitied, coming from a non-milk-drinking home.  The scandal!

Now, because my mom disliked cream (see above farm references) she never really ever cooked with it either.  Milk was for drinking and for cereal.  Sometimes for soup... but that was just for others, never for herself.  When you hear her stories of cream of potato soup served cold and clotted, pretty much directly from the cow, you can understand her aversion.

So... it wasn't until significantly later in my life, that I developed an interest in heavier creams.

Around the age of 17 I started to really get into coffee.  It was cool, and it allowed me the excuse to get away from my family, and to chain-smoke cigarettes while playing chess with my buddies.  Being situated in the suburbs, as mentioned above, it was also an opportunity to broaden my geographical horizons, as most of the 'cool' and 'indie' coffee houses were in the city.

Anyway, when I first started drinking coffee, I used to only drink it black.  There was this one place we'd frequent often which used to put fresh cardamom in their brew mix, and it was just delightful.  I used to spend hours there at a time.

Sometime later, I'm not even sure when exactly, I started to drink coffee less for pleasure and the sheer bohemian awesomeness of it all, and more for utility.  Working full-time, and living downtown (I'd moved into the city), I'd often take coffee breaks which consisted of (you guessed it) coffee.  There was this one place right on Jasper Ave which was kind of shitty, but for a cheap buck you could get a mug which entitled you to unlimited access to at least 4 or 5 large thermal carafes.  You know the kind - where the 'barristas' don't actually need to do any barrista-ing, but rather just make sure that the carafes are always filled.  Anyway, while this may not be the freshest of coffee, it does allow (usually, in my experience) for a variety of blends and flavours.  So it was here that I first developed my love for Irish Cream coffee.  I mean, I'd had Baileys liquor before (see above WASPish upbringing) but this was the first time I'd had 'flavoured' coffee.  Anyway, I found a special delight in loading the shit out of that stuff with cream and sugar.  

It was like drinking candy.

Therefore, for home use, in addition to the 2L carton of skim milk I'd be buying with my regular grocery trip, I'd started to include a small carton of table cream.  Table cream is such a gentle euphemism, don't you agree?  18% cream just doesn't roll off the tongue as nicely.  And thus began my habit of purchasing two types of 'milk'  ---> one for drinking, cereal, and cooking (I'd already started to dabble in some nice white sauces by this time) - and the other for coffee.  Just for coffee.  It never even occurred to me to use the heavier cream for cooking.  Yet.

So, that was probably about 12 years ago... and ever since then, my love affair with cream has seen a steady but consistent downgrading in fat content.  My wife (also a cream-in-coffee lover) never truly cared about the heaviness of the cream as much as I did, and while she didn't really actively suggest we switch from heavy cream, was always on board when I would decide to try just 'one-step' lower on the MF% scale.

So, we did the table cream (18%) for a few years, in the beginning, and it was during this time that I started to feel as though my cardiovascular system was just rockin the shit out of life, so why NOT try making some pastas, sauces and reductions with full-on 18% cream.  I even would go out and buy a small thing of muthafuckn whipping cream (33%!!!) for a sauce if there was going to be company coming over.  
Now - just an aside here - if you've never made a cream sauce out of whipping cream, I recommend you do it at least once.  It is so delectable and rich you don't even need to add any thickening agent (flour/cornstarch).  33% cream seems nasty, but really, it's still considerably less than butter, and you would not hesitate to throw a 1/4 or even 1/2 cup of butter into many recipes...
So, after starting to cook with cream, we bumped our 1/2 litre of 18% up to a full litre, and then began the glory days of reckless cream abandon (and, coincidentally, my love affair with French cooking.)

Anyway, the downgrading of which I speak, has always been present, if sporadic, and we eventually went down to half-and-half cream (10%) about 8 or 9 years ago.  We did this for a long time, and I started to realize you could cook with 10% cream and still get a nice richness with a couple of tricks, like thickening with starch, adding other oils or fats, even by browning some butter beforehand.

As with all things, however, we eventually did let the 10% pass (I'd guess probably about 5 years ago), in favour of "light" cream - which is only 5% MF.  At this point, we were starting to get older, and realizing that although a heavy cream dish can be delicious, there were bodily effects we could expect to have to pay afterwards.  So, I started to tweak and moderate my cream dishes to include less pure saturated fats, and more vegetable fats... It was here that I started cooking with more oils, and developed a fondness for flavoured olive oils.

Well, after living with the light cream for a fair bit, and making healthier choices about fats for a long time, I eventually got my cream sauces to a good balance.  Every once in a while (really, maybe only two or three times a year) I'd still make a super rich cream sauce, but for the vast majority of the time, I was making sauces with light cream, and vegetable oil like olive or canola.

So it was that we didn't really need to downgrade further, but one day it occurred to me while we were in the dairy section, to just give homogenized milk a try (3.25%).  That was only about a year ago now... and I haven't regretted it.

I find it is sufficient for coffee, and more than adequate for when I want a 'rich' cream sauce.  And while we still use mostly skim milk, having a small thing of 3.25% around is handy.

For a while there, when my wife was into breakfast cereal, we tried doing the 4L bags of milk.  Getting milk in bag form was just... weird... for us.  We grew up out West, and we don't put our milk in bags there.  It's just wrong.  I can't speak for everyone, but they just seem so... dug-like.  Ewwww...

But, it is significantly cheaper, and environmentally friendly, so we gave it a try.  Plus, although it is 4L, it comes in 3 separate bags, which means you can usually get said 4L to last a little while longer.  It worked fairly well for the first few months... but then my fickle wife got off the breakfast cereal and that was enough to make some of that last bag spoil.

As it stands now, we've gone back to 2L skim, and 1L homogenized milk every week or two.  

However, given this surprisingly blatant and indicative trend of downgrading over the last 12 years, I'd be foolish to assume that there wouldn't be another shift sometime in the future.  Perhaps in a few years, we'll drop the homogenized down to 2%?

So, despite having been raised on nothing but skim milk, and still to this day being unable to palate drinking anything heavier by itself, over the last decade I've seriously experimented with cooking cream.  And, while undeniably delicious, this experiment has also taught me what exactly makes a rich cream sauce rich, and how to emulate this richness without all the saturated fat.  It has also taught me that there is no reason to completely omit a full-fat cream sauce from your life entirely, as long as you take it - as everything - in moderation.

So, there it is.  For the most part I cook low-fat cream sauces, even the occasional non-fat sauce, but every so often I'll make a treat.

I've just posted a cream sauce (Bleu Cream- Sauce) which definitely constitutes the latter... but I shall have to make a post here someday detailing the former.  Perhaps you'll give me a week or two, however, as one good thing about treating yourself to a truly rich cream sauce, is it does satisfy quite nicely, and makes it so that you're sated for a good length of time afterward, even for a low-fat variety. 

* A note on the saturated fat content of creams and oils...  I, like most North Americans, have been scared silly by studies linking saturated fats with all manner of illness including cancer and heart disease.  And, I'm a believer.  Otherwise my cream usage would in fact not have seen successive lightenings, nor my cooking seen low- and non-fat tweakings (nor, for that matter, a vast number of other healthy choices we implement related to other things than fat).  
However, something I've been trying to do more and more often lately, is actually put the time in to "do the math".  What I mean is, be smart about reading nutrition labels, and put the effort in to convert them all into comparable figures (so you can actually figure out how much of 'x' you're putting in your food).  
You'll be surprised what you learn sometimes.   
I was.   
Like when I discovered olive oil is actually kind of high in saturated fat (not to mention seriously high in calories!).  If you look solely at the amount of grams, there is more saturated fat in 3 tablespoons of olive oil (~6g) than in an entire cup of homogenized milk (~5g).  Surprising, right?  And even an entire cup of full-fat whipping cream (33%) is only about 55g.  Which is less than half the amount in the same quantity of butter (1 cup butter ~120g!!)   
So I guess what I'm saying is, be smart about your fat consumption, but don't be scared!  In a perfect world you shouldn't be having any saturated fats at all (the one thing compelling about veganism in my mind), but there are just so many unique and delightful experiences out there to be so absolute... about anything.  Now I'm getting into my personal philosophy a little bit, so I'll just state that I don't believe in absolutes... that's just so... inflexible.  I'd rather be educated and efficient with my choices, and still glean some happiness out of life.  The venerable adage "everything in moderation" is, in fact, not too terrible a belief by which to live your life.


  1. Great information. I admit that I am not a lover of creamed anything but you do make a very convincing case for homogenized milk. I also admit to a life time of "everything in moderation"--- it truly has been a family motto for a very long time!

  2. Yah... still couldn't drink the stuff on its own, but it is awesome for cooking. Means having to buy two different kinds of milk, but whatevs.

  3. Bought some Homogenized 3.25% milk instead of cream for coffee and cooking.....may even try white sauce!!

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