What Is The 'Malt' In A Malted Milkshake?

It's got a sweet history.
03/25/2016 01:24pm ET

It's ice cream season, thank the heavens. Which brings us to a perennial question: How the heck is a malted milkshake any better than a regular, old-fashioned shake?

Well, we looked into it. It turns out, sometimes things just get lost in the shuffle of time, and malted shakes (or malteds, as they were known at the height of their popularity) predate the milkshakes that we know today by a few years. Malteds were a soda fountain staple that carried thirsty people through Prohibition.

A powdery beginning

The term "milkshake" was was first written in print in 1885, according to Adam Ried's "Thoroughly Modern Milkshakes." But it was a drink "considered both a restorative tonic and a treat" served in a pharmacy's soda shop, made with milk, ice, sugar, whiskey and an egg, and shaken and poured.

Milkshakes made this way were understandably popular, but so was another "health tonic" on pharmacy shelves: malted milk powder.

Wikimedia Commons
A stall at a 1930 tradeshow advertises Horlick's malted milk as a health tonic: "5213 mothers have voluntarily written letters to tell how HORLICK'S has helped their growing children," a sign states.

James Horlick, a British pharmacist with an entrepreneurial vision, moved to Wisconsin to start a business with his brother, William. Together, the Horlicks devised an alternative malt- and wheat-based nutritional supplement for infants that they wanted to expand. It was originally called "Diastoid," but "malted milk" was trademarked in 1887 and babies seemed to like it.

Malteds thrive during Prohibition

Grown-ups also liked this dehydrated, non-perishable, highly caloric and easy-to-carry powdered drink mix -- especially explorers (there's even a range of Horlick Mountains in Antarctica). Health conscious people liked the taste, and it wasn't long before an imaginative fountain man at a Chicago Walgreens put the powder into a chocolate shake in 1922.

Then Prohibition set in, and everybody loved their malteds -- people would wait "three and four deep around the soda fountain to buy the 'double-rich chocolate malted milk'" at the Walgreens where they were served.

H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock via Getty Images
Teens sit at a soda fountain in the 1950s to drink milkshakes.

So what is malted milk powder, anyway?

So history would see the two converge -- malted milk powder and milkshakes -- but what is in the powder? A combo of barley malt, wheat flour, milk powder, salt and sometimes sugar -- barley is malted when the grains are dried, then submerged in water for a few days before it's germinated.

We malt barley and other grains because it breaks down each grain kernel -- the carbs, amino acids, lipids and starches. It's an especially important step in a beer's brewing process, but malted barley provides a lot of the nutrients in malted milk powder, as well.

Where can you buy malted milk powder?

It's still on store shelves -- a popular brand is Nestlé Carnation's malted milk powder -- and is a great ingredient if you want to add depth and creaminess to a sweet dish. Here are a few recipes to try:

Malted Milk Shakes, by Martha Stewart

Malted Milk Ice Cream Bonbons, by The New York Times

Toffee Malted Pumpkin Spice Popcorn, by Living The Sweet Life