The rapid detection of Listeria monocytogenes contamination in food is essential to prevent food-borne illness in humans. The aim of this study was to differentiate non-contaminated milk from milk contaminated with L. monocytogenes using enzyme substrates coupled with the analysis of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The method is based on the activity of β-glucosidase and hippuricase enzymes and the detection of a specific VOC i.e. 2-nitrophenol and 3-fluoroaniline, respectively. VOCs were extracted, separated and detected by headspace-solid phase microextraction coupled to gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (HS-SPME GC–MS). This approach required the inclusion of the selective agent's cycloheximide, nalidixic acid and acriflavine HCl in the growth medium to inhibit interfering bacteria. The VOCs were liberated by L. monocytogenes provided that samples contained at least 1–1.5 × 102 CFU ml−1 of milk prior to overnight incubation. This approach shows potential for future development as a rapid method for the detection of L. monocytogenes contaminated milk.