The Purpose of Scalded Milk in Bread Pudding

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Many older recipes calling for milk and cream instruct the baker to scald it first, or heat it to a temperature over 170 degrees Fahrenheit. In the days before milk was routinely pasteurized this was a prudent food-safety measure, but it seems redundant if you're using modern pasteurized milk in a dish such as bread pudding. Although it's hotly debated by bakers and food scientists, there are still a few good reasons to make your pudding with scalded milk.

It's a Texture Thing

  • The simple act of heating your milk causes a number of complex changes to occur. One of the most significant is its effect on the casein proteins in the milk. In cold milk, those protein molecules take the shape of a tight, spiky-looking ball. As the milk warms, the strands forming those tight bundles begin to expand, forming loose bonds. These change the milk's texture, making it slightly thicker and less fluid. When you combine that scalded milk with eggs to make the custard for your bread pudding, it will set to to a smoother, silkier texture.

It's a Cooking-Time Thing

  • A second benefit of scalding your milk is that working with hot or warm milk, rather than milk at refrigerator temperatures, sharply reduces your baking time. Your custard won't begin to set until it reaches above 160 degrees Fahrenheit, and starting with warm milk will get you there up to 40 percent faster, depending on the depth of your baking dish. In turn, that means you're less likely to have overbaked edges by the time the middle of your pudding is set. The only tricky part is combining hot milk with cold eggs. Stir the milk into the eggs, not the other way around, and do it slowly so the eggs have time to warm up.

It's a Flavor Thing

  • Heating milk has a distinct effect on its flavor, as well. That's why evaporated milk and shelf stable ultrapasteurized milk are less pleasant to drink than fresh milk. In baking, on the other hand, that "cooked" flavor can be an advantage. In his landmark book "On Food and Cooking," food science writer Harold McGee noted that milk heated above 170 F generates new and complex flavor molecules. These give the milk faint hints of vanilla, almond and even egg flavors. Whichever flavors you add to your bread pudding, these delicate notes in the milk will help complement them.

It's Another Flavor Thing

  • One further reason for scalding your milk is that it provides an opportunity for adding additional flavors. For example, if you want your pudding to have the rich taste and aroma of vanilla beans, rather than vanilla extract, they must be infused in the hot milk. You can use the same technique to impart cinnamon flavor from cinnamon sticks, allspice from crushed allspice berries, or a hint of citrus from lemon zest or herbs such as lemon verbena. When the flavors are well developed and the milk is hot, simply strain out the flavorings and add the milk to your pudding.

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