Pork Cooked in Milk (Maiale al Latte)

February  4, 2014

Every Tuesday, Italian expat Emiko Davies is taking us on a grand tour of Italy, showing us how to make classic, fiercely regional dishes at home. 

Today: Pork cooked in milk until it's sweet and tender.

It may not seem like the most intuitive dish, but this recipe from Emilia-Romagna is one that should be part of your repertoire. It's not an elegant, dinner-party dish, but it is a comforting, homely dish, perfect for a family dinner or a night in -- and the leftovers are even better. 

Shop the Story

This is a dish that should not be rushed. Give it time but also don't let it out of your sight -- milk has a tendency to reach a point where it evaporates quite quickly. There's nothing worse than burnt milk. So grab a glass of wine and settle in to the kitchen, keeping the pot company while it simmers away in the background. This is slow cooking at its best.

Much like buttermilk chicken or yogurt marinades, cooking meat in milk makes it wonderfully tender. The lactic acid present in milk tenderizes the meat, making it juicy and sweet. As the milk comfortingly bubbles away for hours, it begins to curdle, turning into a ricotta-like mass and becoming nutty and flavorful after all the mingling with the onion, garlic, and prosciutto. It's not the prettiest dish, but it will win you over for all its deliciousness.

All the classics of Italian cuisine include this dish, and there are different ways to make it. Pellegrino Artusi instructs to cook the milk until it boils away completely. Elizabeth David has the milk reduced until there is just “a small cupful of all the delicious little bits of bacon and onion.” David nominates coriander seed, marjoram, basil, or fennel seed as a rub to spice up the pork. Others may use bay leaf, sage, or rosemary. A peeled zest of lemon rind commonly appears. Artusi doesn't even mention any herbs, but keeps his simple: pork and milk accompanied by bread, grilled over a fire, to soak up the saucy bits. Marcella Hazan's Bologna-style maiale al latte is as simple as Artusi's -- no herbs, no garlic. As essential as you can get. She adds the milk bit by bit, allowing it to cook down each time to a nutty, caramel color before adding more.

A must for cooking this dish is a heavy-bottomed cast iron pan or casserole pot for nicely even, slow cooking. Something like this. Avoid nonstick pans. You just won't get the goodness that comes from the onion and ham browning on the bottom of the pan.

Traditional recipes call for loin, but shoulder will result in a more tender end product; these days, loin is usually a very lean cut which will dry out during this long, slow cooking process. On the other hand, too much fat isn't desireable as the fat won't render as much as in a roast; this pork remains essentially pale and ivory-toned. A shoulder cut is perfect, with the rind removed and fat trimmed.

Serve this simply with some sauteed greens or a crunchy salad -- Nigel Slater suggests a raw red cabbage and walnut salad.

Pork Cooked in Milk (Maiale al Latte)

Serves 4

2 pounds (900 grams) of boneless pork shoulder (also known as Boston butt), without rind
4 cups (1 liter) whole milk
1 1/2 ounces (40 grams) butter
1 1/2 ounces (40 grams) prosciutto, chopped into small cubes
1 onion, finely diced
1 garlic clove, smashed
Salt and pepper
2 bay leaves

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

Photos by Emiko Davies

See what other Food52 readers are saying.

  • Cocina Chronicles
    Cocina Chronicles
  • lisina
  • cucina di mammina
    cucina di mammina
  • Sietske van Schaik
    Sietske van Schaik
  • Chris Kachel
    Chris Kachel
The Australian-Japanese cookbook author has lived in Florence (where a visit to a cheese farm once inspired her to start a food blog) for over 10 years with her Tuscan sommelier husband and two kids. Her third cookbook, Tortellini at Midnight, is out now.


Cocina C. February 9, 2014
I lived in Florence while in college, and enjoyed this dish while visiting Parma in a rustic eatery- It was exquisite! I'm thrilled you wrote this piece, you just brought up great memories of a great experience I had forgotten about. Thank you!
lisina February 8, 2014
my mom used to make it with veal and rosemary (no pancetta). it's a really, really wonderful variation.
cucina D. February 8, 2014
one of my famiglia's favorites from childhood... it's not about thee visual with this dish, one bite and you will wonder why you questioned it in the first place. I love making this and using leftovers for sandwiches the next day :)
Sietske V. February 7, 2014
It looks really unappetizing... but I am entirely intrigued. I had honestly never heard of this dish, but then again, I am one of the rare people that doesn't worship everything Italian. We rarely eat pasta, once a month at most.

I may have to try this, just because I *love* recipes that have that surprise element.
Emiko February 8, 2014
Yes, not pretty but, like many good, homely comfort dishes, it's so good it doesn't matter! And if all the greats of Italian cookery writing have a version of this recipe, I think that's telling in itself. ;)
Chris K. February 5, 2014
Kismet is receiving the new Cook's Illustrated today with this recipe; tweaked to make the sauce smooth and silky, then seeing it for real in your blog! I was intrigued before, now it's on my short list to make this week. Sounds absolutely delicious
lisina February 8, 2014
even though the chunky sauce seems off-putting, the milk curds are exquisitely delicious! especially on a piece of toasted bread once the meat is gone. it's worth giving it a go as is :)
Emiko February 8, 2014
Totally agree! :)
Sylvia E. February 5, 2014
This slow cooked pork sounds wonderful. I've soaked chicken in milk, but never actually cooked in milk. It doesn't matter that it's not the beautiful roast that we see in some pictures. Taste is what matters and I'm definitely going to give this one a try.

I wonder if you can recommend an all-inclusive cooking school vacation in Italy? I've been on a search and have found several, but since you've lived there, you may be able to offer me some advice.
Emiko February 5, 2014
Total disclaimer here, but there is one that I am involved in at the lovely Villa Campestri, a week of cooking courses, food artisans, wine, markets - - Otherwise, you should also check out Judy Witts Francini's week long courses too:
Sylvia E. February 5, 2014
Thank you, Emiko, for including the links to both the cooking classes in Italy. Of the two, I think Villa Campestri would fit my budget best. I still have a few others to check out before I make my decision. I appreciate your help.
Emiko February 5, 2014
You're welcome!
Angel A. February 5, 2014
Forgot to say that I use a pressure cooker to make this. Same recipe half quantity of milk and less time before I can eat it. Win, win.
Emiko February 5, 2014
Good idea!
Angel A. February 5, 2014
Yum! This used to be a favourite and seeing your lovely photo has reminded me I haven't made it in ages. So, thanks for reminding me of a great dish and some happy times. More than 20 years on I can clearly remember the first time I ate this, at a friend's house not long after I'd moved to Italy. I thought it was probably the best thing I'd ever eaten (up till then it probably was). I told my friend's Mother how fantastic it was and asked if she could teach me to make it. She looked back amazed and said, "It's ONLY pork in milk". Complete culture clash, I'd had NO idea you could even cook meat in milk. Lol. If I'm cooking for non Italian guests I usually throw the 'sauce' in the food processor for a few seconds to turn it into a smooth creme as the 'curds and whey' can be a little off putting to the uninitiated (usually only till they taste it though).
Emiko February 5, 2014
Haha, a great food story! I personally love the rustic look of the curds in this sauce when left as they are - but as some cooks say, when it's for the home table, leave it and when you've got guests, you can blend it to make a (slightly prettier) smooth sauce.
amysarah February 4, 2014
I love this dish. First time I made it years ago, I somehow missed that the milk would curdle so much, and wondered if I'd done something wrong. One bite and I didn't care.
Emiko February 5, 2014
Exactly! The curdled sauce is actually my (and my toddler's) favourite part!
Dan R. February 4, 2014
Emiko, you had me at hello with this dish. wow.
Emiko February 5, 2014
So glad :)