What Is Malt? And How Is It Used In Milkshakes?

Whether it's a beer or a Scotch or a malted milkshake, pretty much every beverage made with malt is going to make someone happy. Malt is also a secret ingredient in other recipes - let’s take a look.

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August 27, 2021
Stock photo showing a strawberry smoothie / milkshake drink, served in an American diner-style knickerbocker glass. This drink has been made with pureed strawberries, milk and whipped cream and topped with hundreds and thousands.

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Stock photo showing a strawberry smoothie / milkshake drink, served in an American diner-style knickerbocker glass. This drink has been made with pureed strawberries, milk and whipped cream and topped with hundreds and thousands.

Photo by: mtreasure/Getty Images

mtreasure/Getty Images

By Fraya Berg for Food Network Kitchen

Fraya is a chef and a contributing writer at Food Network.

Perhaps you know about malt because you enjoyed it as a kid. Malted milk balls and malted milkshakes, anyone? Or maybe you hear “malt” and instantly think about single malt Scotch. Whatever the case, there are loads of foods using malt that you probably don’t even know about. Intrigued? Read on for more details.

Dark Chocolate Malted Milk Balls in a Bowl

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Dark Chocolate Malted Milk Balls in a Bowl

Photo by: bhofack2/Getty Images

bhofack2/Getty Images

What Is Malt?

The short answer is that malt is a sweetener with a distinct toasted, caramel-like, fruity flavor. It results from processed cereal grains thanks to lots of science – more on how it’s made below. Malt is different from a malt, which is the name for a milkshake made with malted milk powder (a derivative of malt). More on the milkshakes below, too.

Field of Barley on sunny day - background of fresh summer gold barley field ears close up with shallow depth nature backdrop

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Field of Barley on sunny day - background of fresh summer gold barley field ears close up with shallow depth nature backdrop

Photo by: CreativeNature_nl/Getty Images

CreativeNature_nl/Getty Images

What Is Malt Made Out Of?

The long answer to this question is an explanation of what malt is made from and how it’s made. The process begins with grain, most frequently barley, but other grains are used too, including corn. Here’s a very simplified description of the steps:

Malt Starts Out As Grain

Grain, being a seed, will germinate when soaked in water. So, step one is to soak the grain and wait for the tiny spout to appear. Since the grain is the food the tiny sprout needs to grow before it gets nutrients from soil, it’s packed with starches, protein, vitamins and minerals. There are enzymes in the grain that get to work and turn the hard seed into tiny pieces of sugar and protein and other stuff that feeds the sprout.

sprouted grain of barley for background

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sprouted grain of barley for background

Photo by: Yevhenii Orlov/Getty Images

Yevhenii Orlov/Getty Images

The Grain and Sprouts Become Malt

When the sprout pops up, the grain is heated to stop the tiny plant from growing. Sounds harsh, but the sprout is sacrificed in the name of malt. Everything that the sprout would have used as food to grow is what malt is.

The Malt Becomes Mash

At this point, all the heated grain is mashed and then used to make any number of things.

Some of the mash is processed to extract the sugars that are used to make malt powder.

Some of the mash takes a different route and is added to yeast. It turns out, yeast eats the same tiny pieces of food that the sprout needed. When given mash, the yeast grows and multiplies and grows some more. This process is called fermentation. The result of fermentation is alcohol.

Whisky in wooden background

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Whisky in wooden background

Photo by: Jay's photo/Getty Images

Jay's photo/Getty Images

What Is Malt Used For?

Powdered malt is added to flour and used to make some very familiar dough-based foods: bagels, Belgian waffles, whole grain breads and even tortillas.

It’s the main ingredient in the center of a malted milk ball, and it can be added to any milk shake, turning the shake into a malt.

Malt, along with hops, yeast and water are the ingredients for beer.

Finally, malt is one of the main ingredients in whiskey (the term used in the U.S.) and whisky (the term used in Scotland). By the by, when a Scotch is labeled as a single malt, it doesn’t mean it was made with just one malt, it means the whisky came from just one distiller.

What Is Malt Powder vs. Malted Milk Powder?

Malt powder is quite different than malted milk powder, so make sure you don’t confuse the two.

Malt powder is often used in breadmaking, and in this case it’s commonly labeled as diastatic malt powder. When mixed into dough, diastatic malt powder feeds the yeast in the mixture, causing the dough to rise quickly and the resulting bread to spring well. In addition, malt powder is used in some processed foods to create caramel color and malt-like flavor.

Malted milk powder is malt powder plus milk solids. It’s a pale-yellow powder with a milky, delicately nutty flavor that’s classically used to make malts – a.k.a. malted milk shakes.

Chocolate malt at an ice cream parlor.

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Chocolate malt at an ice cream parlor.

Photo by: sandoclr/Getty Images

sandoclr/Getty Images

What Is a Malt? And What Is the Difference Between a Malt and a Milkshake?

A malt, also known as a malted milkshake, holds a classic place in American diner and soda fountain lore. Popularized in the 1920s, malts or malted milkshakes are simply classic milkshakes with the addition of malted milk powder. They’re neither thicker than classic milkshakes nor healthier, but they certainly have a characteristic nutty, extra milky flavor that’s addictive. Make one at home, or stop by that old school diner you’ve been wanting to try for ages.

What Is Malt Liquor?

Perhaps you’ve read that one of your favorite beverages is in fact a flavored malt beverage (Smirnoff and Mike’s Hard Lemonade, we’re looking at you). Malt liquor is made similarly to beer, only often with grains that are less expensive than barley, such as corn, and without the addition of hops. Malt liquor is stripped of its color and scent and then combined with other flavors. Hard seltzers are in fact not malt liquors; they’re made from fermented sugar, not grains.

Serving size samples of different types of vinegar including Balsamic, Apple Cider, White and Malt vinegars, with text names added.

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Serving size samples of different types of vinegar including Balsamic, Apple Cider, White and Malt vinegars, with text names added.

Photo by: MillefloreImages/Getty Images

MillefloreImages/Getty Images

What Is Malt Vinegar?

Malt vinegar is vinegar that started out as beer. It is a cousin of wine vinegar and is made exactly the same way: yeast and bacteria go to work on all the sugars and alcohol in the beer and it becomes vinegar.

Malt Recipes:

The recipe is the base for a variety of lusciously rich flavored truffles. Scroll down to see the exact directions for making malted truffles.

Photo by: Armando Rafael

Armando Rafael

The dressing for this slaw has just a few ingredients, and malt vinegar is one of them.

Malted Chocolate Pudding Cake

Malted Chocolate Pudding Cake

Photo by: Tara Donne ©Tara Donne

Tara Donne, Tara Donne

Cake, pudding, malt – what more could you ask for in a chocolate dessert?

This British classic uses beer twice: once in the batter, and the malt vinegar that was beer in its former life.

Food stylist: Jamie Kimm
Prop Stylist: Marina Malchin

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Food stylist: Jamie Kimm Prop Stylist: Marina Malchin,Food stylist: Jamie KimmProp Stylist: Marina Malchin

©Con Poulos

Con Poulos

This grownups-only treat is actually a malt: malt powder and Scotch whisky. You can make it two ways: with plain malt or chocolate malt. They’re both just what you want on a hot summer eve.

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