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What Exactly is Malt?

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Malt is a shape-shifter. Sometimes it's a milkshake; other times it shows up in New York City bagels, and then—poof—it's a vinegar, and then it's back—but this time it's in our beer and whiskey. So what actually is malt?

The secret ingredient in this ice cream? Malt.
The secret ingredient in this ice cream? Malt. Photo by James Ransom

As it turns out, malt refers to grains that have undergone a process that makes them sweeter and give them qualities that aid in the fermentation process. They are used as the base for countless things we enjoy everyday—candy and milkshakes included:

What Malt Is

Malt is a cereal grain, typically barley, that, once sprouted, is dried (in a process called malting). Once dried, malt is often ground into a slightly sweet powder, interchangeably referred to simply as malt or sweet meal.

It tastes sweet because before the grains are dried, they’re soaked in water to allow them to germinate, then the germination is halted with hot air. Without getting too deep into the science, a sugar called maltodextrine is developed in addition to the sucrose and fructose already existing in the grain, making it sweet to taste.

Photo by Emily Hilliard

In addition to the sugars, enzymes are developed that aid in fermentation processes, hence its popularity in the beer and whiskey industries.The result is a sweet, protein-rich, fermenting substance that’s used in baking, vinegar, enriched flour, distilling liquor, and milk beverages, to name a few.

Steeping malted grains, then adding dried malt extract to beer.
Steeping malted grains, then adding dried malt extract to beer. Photo by Bobbi Lin

Malt in Beer

At the foundation of beers are grains, and a large percentage of these grains are usually base malts (or “base grains”) in an all-grain beer recipe, which contain the ability to convert starches into fermentable sugars. These fermentable grains are usually made up of barley. Sometimes, in addition to base malts, malt extracts or syrup are added to beer. These extracts can be used as a sweetener, but are often used in brewing, in both a powdered and liquid form, as an additional source of fermentable sugar.

How to Brew Beer at Home (Especially if You've Never Brewed Before)
How to Brew Beer at Home (Especially if You've Never Brewed Before)

Malt in Whiskey

If you’ve ever watched Mad Men or have a mahogany-walled library in your home, you’ve likely heard of malt whiskey (and single-malt whisky). Malts are used in whiskey for the same reason they’re used in beer—as a fermenting agent and for flavoring. A “malt whiskey” refers to a whiskey made from a fermented mash that contains at least 51% malted grain (sometimes including rye). Single-malt whiskey is malt whiskey made at one distillery and are often associated with Scottish whiskeys.

Triple Threat Cookies

Triple Threat Cookies by TheRunawaySpoon

Polvorón Candies

Polvorón Candies by Food52

Malt in Baked Goods and Desserts

Over the past year, we’ve noticed malted milk powder—a mixture of malted barley, wheat flour, and powdered milk (originally developed in the 20th century)—popping up in more recipes. Not only does it yield baked goods (and ice creams) with a nutty, sweet flavor, but when added to flour, it also helps baked goods to rise by helping yeast grow through the fermentation process, according to King Arthur Flour.

Malt syrup is also used in many classic bagel recipes as a sweetener. And since its enzymes break down flour’s starch, it helps to release flour’s natural flavors, improving the flavor of bagels.

How to Make Hot Cocoa Mix
How to Make Hot Cocoa Mix

Malt in Milk Beverages

If you order a “malt” at a diner, you’ll likely receive a vanilla ice cream shake made with malted milk powder and chocolate syrup, a standard order that took off in 1920s soda shops after a Walgreens employee invented it (back when Walgreens served milkshakes).

This invention coincided with the popularity of Ovaltine, a cocoa-flavored drink mix originally made from malt powder, milk, and eggs.

Whether you're looking for the perfect bagel, or a subtly sweet main dish, here are several recipes that use malt powder and malt syrup:

Soft Pretzels with Beer Cheese

Soft Pretzels with Beer Cheese by Nothing in the House // Emi...

Matilda, Maple, and Garlic Pork Shoulder with Crispy Skin

Matilda, Maple, and Garlic Pork Shoulder with Crispy Skin by EmilyNunn

Malted Vanilla Ice Cream with Chocolate-Covered Pretzels

Malted Vanilla Ice Cream with Chocolate-Covered Pretzels by fiveandspice

Hand-Pulled Breadsticks (Grissini Stirati)

Hand-Pulled Breadsticks (Grissini Stirati) by Emiko

Homemade Hot Cocoa Mix

Homemade Hot Cocoa Mix by Izy Hossack

Baker's Sign Soft Pretzels

Baker's Sign Soft Pretzels by Nicholas Day

How do you use malt in cooking? Will you be trying any of these recipes? Tell us in the comments below!

Automagic Spring Menu Maker!
Automagic Spring Menu Maker!

Tags: Tips & Techniques, Advice, Ingredients