Food Science: Why Skin Forms on Milk

For us, the chewy skin that forms on the top of puddings has always been a special treat. It actually wasn't until culinary school that we learned it wasn't as universally desirable as we'd thought! Why does this skin form and how can it be prevented? Get the answer below:As we learned last week in our discussion of how milk curdles, milk is made up of several different elements including water, proteins, and fat. When milk is heated, the water the starts to evaporate and the other elements become increasingly concentrated. The proteins - casein and whey - also have a tendency to coagulate once the milk reaches a temperature of about 150°.

Both the evaporation of water and the coagulation of the proteins work together to form a skin on the surface of cooked milk dishes like creamy soups, puddings, and even a mug of hot chocolate. The thickness and chewiness of the skin is affected by how hot the milk is heated (resulting in more evaporation and coagulation) and the fat content in the milk (which encourages coagulation). The skin starts forming on the stovetop and continues forming as the dish cools.

The easiest way to prevent a skin from forming is to stir the milk as it heats and then to continue stirring occasionally as it cools. This breaks up the protein clumps and makes sure the temperature of the milk stays even throughout. Pressing plastic wrap or wax paper against the surface of a cooling dish also discourages a skin from forming. This prevents evaporation and keeps the surface moist.

Or if you're like us and you like the skin, just do nothing!

Related: Fresh Milk: What Kind Do You Buy?

(Image: Flickr member Sune Frack licensed under Creative Commons)

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