What Is Sweet Milk — And Why Is It In So Many of My Grandma's Recipes?

Hint: It doesn’t have anything to do with sweetened condensed milk. 

When you see "sweet milk" referenced in an old recipe, you may feel inclined to use sweetened condensed milk — please don't do that. Here's what to use instead:

What Is Sweet Milk?

Glass of milk pouring
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Your recipe is simply referring to whole milk.

So why the heck didn't they just call it "milk?!" Well, they had to differentiate fresh milk from sour milk and buttermilk. People in the olden days (particularly during the Great Depression) weren't keen on wasting anything. When milk went bad, they found ways to use it. Buttermilk, meanwhile, was a staple ingredient during the Great Depression, as it was cheap and easier to store than other types of milk.

If recipes called for just "milk," it would've been difficult for the reader to discern which of these three kinds of milk they were supposed to use.

What About Sweet Cream?

milk or cream in pitcher
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This one isn't quite so cut and dry. If your grandma's recipe calls for "sweet cream," it's probably referring to heavy whipping cream as opposed to sour cream or cream cheese. In some recipes, though, it could mean half-and-half. Just use your best judgment in cases where it's unclear.

Sweet Milk vs. Sweetened Condensed Milk

sweetened condensed milk dripping off spoon
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Sweetened condensed milk and whole milk (sweet milk) are very different ingredients and absolutely cannot be used in place of one another.

Whole milk is cow's milk in the most unadulterated form you can buy at the grocery store, though it is processed and homogenized. It contains only about 3.25 percent milk fat and spoils relatively quickly.

Sweetened condensed milk is milk that has been reduced and sweetened with an ample amount of sugar. It's extremely thick, extremely sweet, and can last for years in an unopened can.

Sweet Milk vs. Buttermilk In Baking

Pouring milk into bowl with flour
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Whole milk and buttermilk are both refrigerator staples that pop up frequently in new and old recipes, but they serve different purposes in baking.

Whole milk is used in baking to moisten batter or dough, add protein (which strengthens the batter or dough), and to improve flavor and texture.

Buttermilk is a fermented dairy drink that is much more acidic than whole milk. This acidity is important, as it reacts with leavening agents to produce light and fluffy baked goods. Buttermilk is also much thicker because of its high lactic acid content.


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