Tucked away among the spices and exotica of your kitchen, somewhere near the tin of vegetable shortening and the bag of all-purpose flour, there probably lurks a box of slowly caking dried nonfat milk powder. Talk about drab. It may come in little envelopes, it may be blazoned with hopeful little recipes for whipped topping, but there's almost always an involuntary "yuk" at the thought of the gritty stuff. And if you do succumb to the blandishments of that whipped topping recipe, it will probably set back your consumption of dried milk another half-box a year.

But you could befriend it, take it out to dinner, so to speak, making it part of your everyday kitchen life and finding out that glamor isn't everything.

There are at least three main reasons to invest in a box of milk powder. By far the most common is economy. Although prices vary widely (I just finished one store-brand box that makes 20 quarts of reconstituted skim milk for $4.88 and opened another brand that does the same for $5.99), there are always some savings over the price of fresh milk.

Women's magazines commonly suggest mixing reconstituted skim milk with fresh whole milk, half and half, for a palatable way to reduce costs and spare your family a few calories. It makes sense, especially if your family's milk drinkers polish off more than two gallons a week. Ours don't, and the loss of the gallon discount on the fresh milk would reduce the savings by this method for our family.

When we do multiply our gallon of milk to two with dried milk, I usually wind up using a good portion of the milk to make lemon juice ricotta, but that does take a little extra time and planning. And the longer your dry milk stays in the cupboard, waiting for you to decide when to use it, the more likely it is to lump and have that stale-cardboard taste we tend to associate with it. But that's not the only way to use dried milk.

Follow the directions on the package and use milk powder in your regular baking? Sure. In almost all foods you cook, dried skim milk powder is indistinguishable in the final product from fresh milk. And it has the added bonus that you can use it to boost the nutrition in your offerings without essentially changing the recipes. One thing to remember is that, although dried skim milk powder does not have the fat of whole fresh milk and, obviously, no liquid, it does have milk sugars and tends to sweeten the foods to which you are adding those excellent milk proteins, calcium and phosphorus. So watch the amount you add to sauces, soups and any other food where a sweet taste might prove objectionable. But in any inherently sweet food, you might even be able to reduce the proportion of refined sweeteners you add, and that is rather a nice point.

Places to tuck in an extra measure of dried milk (not an exhaustive list):

* Blender ice-cream shakes or breakfast smoothies.

* Breakfast cocoa, cooled to make "chocolate milk" for later.

* In the instant oatmeal, before stirring in the boiling water (this gives the same effect as using boiling milk, and saves you a pot to wash).

* In the granola bowl, before stirring in the whole fresh milk. (My granola recipe, from "Diet for a Small Planet," calls for dry milk in the original mix, to form a complimentary protein with sesame seeds. I boost the quantity by adding it to the mix then add more when served..)

* In making yogurt. (It also helps to produce a firmer product.)

* In making milk-based dessert puddings, such as tapioca, cornstarch puddings and egg custards.

In milk-based sauces and soups. When we were living in Paris, our French maman told us to use the cooking juice from vegetables as half the liquid to make the white sauce in which they would be served. Her specific example was cauliflower, but I found it also great for creamed carrots. You preserve the nutrients leached out into the cooking water and heighten the color and flavor interest of the vegetable. If you further adapt this method by using the cooking liquid for all the sauce liquid, but adding the appropriate amount of dried milk powder to it, you get the extra nutrition of the milk, along with the vegetables. You will have to use a milk powder that dissolves readily in hot liquids, however, and take care in stirring your milk mixture into the sauce base, as a hot liquid will cause the sauce to lump if added too quickly. You can always smooth it out in your blender, but why give yourself the problem in the first place?

After all, my greatest reason for using dried milk powder is to avoid extra work. I have found over the years that this kitchen Cinderella has spared me the washing of many a pot, bowl or measuring cup, many meltings of butter, scaldings of milk, many waits for cooling, many trips to the store for milk.

Rule #1. Never reconstitute, if you can help it. I always try to add my skim milk powder to the dry ingredients, thus saving the liquid measuring cup, that only measures water. This also gives me a chance to add only as much liquid as my batter needs. It does vary, you know, according to the size of your egg, the dryness of your flour, additional ingredients such as grated fruits you may be adding to, say, a recipe for muffins or pancakes. You have all the milk goodness there anyway, so the liquid becomes merely a matter of texture.

In recipes calling for scalded milk, as do most bread recipes, I put the dry milk powder straight into the mixing bowl with my oatmeal, cracked wheat, molasses or sugar, salt and shortening, and then stir in boiling water to melt the meltables and scald the scaldables. That saves me two pans, in theory, because I do not melt the "butter" separately. And if I am in a hurry, I do not add all the liquid requirement as boiling water, but save half back as cold water and add only after the scalding/melting process is over. Voila! instant lukewarm.

Some recipes that call for skimmed milk in a powder form would be impossible with fresh milk. One I remember from my childhood is a peanut butter candy my mother would give us as a kind of edible play clay. I see it resurfacing now as something nutritious and good fun to be rolled in chopped nuts, wheat germ or dried fruit bits.

Following are some ways to put this kitchen Cinderella to work.

TAP WATER YOGURT

Our water heater is set at a relatively low temperature. When I run it as hot as possible, and then add skimmed milk powder, the resulting mix is within one or two degrees of the ideal temperature. Always check yours, before adding the yogurt culture. For one quart of yogurt, take a scant quart of hot water, add 1 1/2 to 2 cups of dried skim milk and stir well until dissolved. Check temperature. It should be no higher than 110 degrees, nor much less. Stir in no more than 2 teaspoons of plain, live-culture yogurt, and pour the mixture into clean containers of the desired sizes. Leftover yogurt containers are fine, so are small peanut butter jars or canning jars. Cover and place the yogurt jars in a bath of that same 110-degree tap water in a heavy kettle with a well-fitting lid. I bring the water up at least 3/4 of the way to the top. Set in a warm place for 6 to 12 hours. Check now and then to see if it has set, but don't shake it around unduly, as yogurt likes its rest. Refrigerate to keep it after it has set. I use the finished product in place of sour or buttermilk in many recipes, and it is great in fresh and frozen yogurt recipes. The more milk powder you add, the firmer the finished yogurt will be.

LEMON JUICE RICOTTA

In this recipe, powdered milk is a supplement rather than necessity. Heat 1 quart whole fresh, half-and-half or all skim milk. At this point you can add up to one cup additional skim milk powder for a higher final yield of ricotta solids. Heat mixture to scalding. Add the juice of 1 lemon or about 2 tablespoons of reconstituted lemon juice to the warmed milk, and remove from the heat. Let stand, covered, at least 2 hours, preferably overnight, at room temperature, then drain through cheesecloth, saving the whey to use in making bread (pre-scalded!) or for other cooking uses. You may refrigerate during the draining process, and must do so to keep the cheese, which will remain fresh for up to a week. We have found this more than satisfactory in all our ricotta recipes. The yield is about 1 cup cheese per quart of milk, more if you use more dry milk. Curd is coarser and yield better, the hotter you let the milk get, but I prefer the finer curd.

PEANUT BUTTER CANDY

If you have no small children, this loses much of its appeal unless you are a peanut butter fanatic.

Combine equal parts peanut butter, smooth or chunky, and dried skimmed milk powder (do not reconstitute). Moisten with corn syrup or honey until the mixture reaches a kneadable consistency. Let your children knead it until smooth and roll it in little balls, which you may then roll in the following mixtures: granola, sesame seeds and sunflower seeds; chopped nuts, wheat germ and instant cocoa powder; snipped dried fruit.

RICE GRIDDLECAKES (Makes about 12 pancakes)

This favorite recipe from Fanny Farmer called for warm rice and melted butter, but who has time to cook rice the same morning as pancakes? I use leftover cold rice, but boiling water and dry milk powder. Melt the butter as you warm the rice and save another pan. 1 cup cooked rice 1/3 cup dry skim milk powder 1 tablespoon butter or margarine 1 cup boiling water 2 eggs, separated 7/8 cup flour

Mix together cooked rice, milk powder, butter, boiling water and egg yolks. Sift and add flour. Beat the whites of the eggs until stiff and fold into the batter. Fry as you would any other pancakes.