Designer Milk: The New “It” Food

Bao buns. Tiki drinks. Red velvet cake doughnuts. Milk. Milk?

Yeah, you heard right. The second most elemental beverage known to man—that thing that formerly only kids drank—has taken a star turn. Suddenly, milk is an "it" food.

There’s a milk bar in the Chelsea Market in New York City. This summer, Eleven Madison Park was serving a big snowball of frozen milk filled with honey. WD-50 and Spot Dessert Bar were doing evaporated milk ice cream, and Momofuku Milk Bar was selling cereal milk–flavored soft serve.

It isn’t surprising that ice cream and other desserts contain milk, but rather that chefs now see milk as a dish’s selling point. Consider that five years ago everybody was saying they were lactose intolerant, ordering soy lattes, and—when they were eating dairy—always eating nonfat everything.

So what caused milk’s transformation from demonized fluid to designer ingredient? First there were the wedge dairy products. In August, Tasting Table reported on the ubiquity of yogurt on menus: from Blackbird in Chicago’s almond-infused version to a cold-smoked variety at Seattle’s Spur Gastropub. Small-batch, high-end ice cream has been on the ascendancy for a few years: At the recent Eat Real Festival in Oakland, California, I counted six different vendors. The New York Times revealed that the latest adult beverage trend is alcoholically spiked milk shakes. And of course who doesn’t love fancy cheese?

But milk has the added benefit of being associated with a cool, underground movement. Encouraged by groups like the Weston A. Price Foundation, raw, unpasteurized milk has spiked in popularity. It’s illegal to buy and sell commercially in many states, and where it is legal, retailers often don’t want to assume the risk. (In March of this year, Whole Foods pulled it from their shelves in four states.)

But renegade retailers like Rawesome Foods in Venice, California (busted in July), have sold it under the counter. And you can join raw milk collectives that skirt local prohibitions by buying direct from farms. Though science is inconclusive, raw milk’s acolytes believe it builds one’s immune system, heals skin problems, and is nothing short of a superfood.

Raw Is Sexy

At new San Francisco restaurant Commonwealth, there’s a dessert called the White Russian: coffee ice cream, vodka gelée, génoise cake, and raw milk mousse.

“We find raw milk a little bit sexy,” says Chef Jason Fox.

Despite milk's ascendancy on menus as a star ingredient, there aren’t too many restaurants promoting it as a stand-alone beverage. No milk flights or milk pairings. (At least none that I could find.) But in the coffeehouse world—most adults consume the largest quantities of milk in coffee—the beans aren't the only thing people are paying attention to.

For the past two years, Portland, Oregon's Coffeehouse Northwest has been creating a custom milk blend for their cappuccinos: a quarter Sunshine Dairy brand conventional whole milk mixed with three-quarters Organic Valley brand whole milk.

“We find that the Organic Valley gives more of a preferable taste but has a more buttery mouthfeel and doesn’t quite steam as well,” says barista Calvin Young.

The coffeehouse proudly advertises the fact that it uses the more expensive milk in its signature drink, and offers consumers the option to pay 50 cents to get the fancy blend in other types of espresso drinks. (Significantly, says Young, few choose to.)

When it opens next week, San Francisco restaurant The Summit will allow customers to choose between espresso drinks made with conventional local Clover milk or those made with Straus, a boutique, local organic whole milk, for a 25- to 50-cent up-sell (prices have not been finalized). At retail, a gallon of Straus typically runs at least 80 cents more than the conventional version.

“We’re hoping that customers will realize the difference the Straus milk makes,” says Chef Eddie Lau.

There are echoes in the coffee industry’s tentative steps toward more expensive, fancy milk of grass-fed beef in the mid-2000s. Anna Kharbas, manager of foodservice sales at Straus Family Creamery, says she remembers a San Francisco restaurant at that time offering a similar deal: Buy a conventional steak at one price or a grass-fed steak for a few dollars more.

Could it be we are close to seeing a day when adults shamelessly order tall glasses of frosty milk with their dinners and listen to a sommelier expound upon the beverage’s unique terroir?

And why not? Milk pairs well with food. Except artichokes.

Photograph by Chris Rochelle