Uses for Sour Milk

I used to drink a ridiculous amount of milk as a kid, and up into my early twenties. Breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I’d have a glass of milk. Sometimes, I’d have a glass for the heck of it between meals, because it was more filling than water, and I didn’t want to eat a snack that would spoil my appetite. Without even including other applications, like using milk in cereal and baking, I was definitely the reason my parents bought milk by the gallon, at least weekly.

Boy, did I love milk.

These days, I can’t drink milk or eat dairy like I used to unless I want to have a bad time. I still love milk, especially a good, minimally-pasteurized whole milk that I have to shake in order to “homogenize” the cream top into the rest of the milk. But I’m much more judicious now in choosing how and where (as in, in what capacity) I’ll have my dairy fix, for both the slight dairy intolerance, and the fact that we spend wayyyy more money on milk to make sure we’re getting it from local, happy cows.

So, needless to say, drinking milk by the gallon a week is out.

Now, here’s the rub: because it’s much more economical to buy it by the gallon, but also because we don’t use it as quickly as I did in my younger and more vulnerable years, our milk tends to go sour before we can use it in cereal, tea, and coffee fast enough. And while I don’t mind the taste of sour milk (I’ll get to that in a moment), I’m not such a huge fan of how it curdles in my hot tea. Gross.

So, what do we do when a quart or two of our precious milk goes sour? Do we pour it down the drain? Cry over spoiled milk? (Yes, I went there.)

Of course not. Don’t throw out your sour milk just yet!

There are myriad uses of sour milk in cooking, baking, and even just plain eating (yep!) that will make you think twice about ever throwing out “bad milk” again. Sour milk lends a tangy depth of flavor to baked goods, soups, sauces, and the like that plain, fresh milk just can’t beat. And, if you’re out of buttermilk, sour milk is a pretty good substitute, both for its flavor and leavening power.

Before I get into some of these uses, however, a few words of caution:

  1. There is a difference between “sour milk” and “spoiled milk.” Your human nose, though not the best in the animal kingdom, is a pretty good judge of whether or not the milk is something you want to use in cooking. In my experience, I’ll use sour milk as long as it still smells like yogurt or sour cream. Once it smells like something in the garbage, it’s not good for anything but watering our blueberry bushes.
  2. You can also taste the difference between sour and spoiled milk – sour milk will taste, well, sour, while spoiled milk will taste bitter (don’t worry – you can always spit out truly spoiled milk, and believe me, you’ll want to).
  3. If your milk changes drastically in color or texture (e.g., big chunks, brown or yellow, etc.), it’s probably spoiled. Discard.
  4. Ultra-pasteurized milks often won’t get to the “sour” stage, but skip right to spoiling. Pasteurization, while great for extending the shelf life of milk and preventing possible food-borne illness, is also, unfortunately, great for killing off some of the good bacteria that lends the milk flavor (think yogurt, cheese, and the like – they all have bacteria to turn milk into further tastiness!). So, if you buy ultra-pasteurized milk, you probably won’t be able to use it for anything good once it goes south.
  5. Use your danged judgment here – humans have long used sour milk for making cheeses, baking, and other culinary applications, because we haven’t always had refrigeration and pasteurization. That being said, while these uses are generally safe and delicious (we’ve survived this long!), if you’re skeptical and have underlying health conditions, or a doctor tells you not to use sour milk (though I can’t imagine why), just don’t.

Mmmmm’kay, disclaimers over. If you’re still wary of using sour milk, or can’t tell yet the difference between sour and truly spoiled milk, you can also make your own: just add a tablespoon of vinegar (any kind will do, except balsamic – that would be gross) or fresh lemon juice to every cup of milk you want to sour, and let it stand five minutes before using.

Last notes on using sour milk (I promise!):

  1. Sour milk will often separate into curds and whey upon heating, even just a little bit. (It won’t, however, do this while mixed into baked goods and pancakes.) If you use it in a hot application, such as a sauce or soup, be prepared for curds, either by being okay with curds in your soup or sauce, or by heating the milk separately and draining the curds or whey.
  2. You may find you need a bit more sour milk than what is called for in fresh milk or water. Sour milk tends to be thicker and less liquidy than its fresh cousin, so it’s okay if you use a bit more.

Now, what do we do with sour milk around here?

  1. Sour milk pancakes. Replace the milk or buttermilk in any recipe with sour milk. You’ll have fluffier, tangier pancakes, and you may never go back to plain milk again.
  2. Quickbreads. Replace the liquid in most quickbread recipes (think corn, pumpkin, zucchini bread and the like) with sour milk.
  3. Pound cake and other cakes. You’d better believe that an excess of sour milk around here means pound cake for dessert! Replace buttermilk or milk with sour milk.
  4. Sour milk scones. Seriously, best scones ever. Replace the milk or cream with sour milk.
  5. Sour milk biscuits. The next best thing to buttermilk biscuits. Replace the milk with sour milk.
  6. Bread in general. You can mix in sour milk where a bread recipe calls for water (or even milk). If the recipe calls for water, I’ll usually separate the curds out of the milk first so I’m just left with whey (see below), but I’ve gotten good results either way.
  7. Makeshift whey. Heat the sour milk until the curds separate from the liquid, or the whey. Use the whey in anything you want to bulk up with a little extra protein. (And yes, you can eat the curds, too, if you wish!)
  8. Makeshift cottage cheese. This isn’t the true method to make cottage cheese, which is a lot more labor intensive, and you’ll end up with smaller curds, like ricotta, but it’s still pretty good, provided you’ve made sure the milk is sour and not bitter. Heat the sour milk until the curds separate from the whey. Drain the curds (you can reserve the whey for the use above, or for mixing back in with the curds), and mix with milk or salt and eat as is.
  9. Pasta sauce. This works especially well if you have cream on hand to mix in, as well, or are making a pasta that has ricotta or other similar cheese in it.
  10. Soups and stews. Adds tanginess and thickness, depending on how much you use.
  11. Mashed potatoes or other mashed vegetables. Mix it in to the drained vegetables for creamy, tangy deliciousness.
Sour milk in sourdough? You betcha.

Apparently, there are cosmetic and tenderizing uses for sour milk, as well, but I haven’t brought myself to put the stuff on my face or hair, or on a tough steak. However, if you’ve got other uses for sour milk, culinary or otherwise, leave them in the comments – I’d love to see what you do to make your groceries last longer!

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