How Do I Choose the Right Milk to Make Cheese With?

We recently sat down with our home cheesemaking expert, Jess, and asked her some of the most common questions we receive from our community when it comes to choosing the right milk when making cheese. There are so many options and variables to consider, it can get overwhelming. Luckily for us, Jess gives us some genuine insight into how to make the perfect choice of milk next time you're making some delicious cheese at home. Enjoy!

Q: What kind of milk can I use to make cheese?

Jess: Most cheeses, with a few specific exceptions, are made with whole milk. This can mean pasteurized milk from the grocery store, or raw milk fresh off the farm. The only milk that should not be used for cheesemaking is ULTRAPASTEURIZED milk. This milk has been heated to such a high temperature that all of the native bacteria and enzymes are completely changed and destroyed. As a result it will not form a curd and will make only a mush resembling ricotta if an attempt is made to make cheese with it.

Q: Can I use skim milk to make cheese?

Jess: Skim milk is mostly used for making hard cheeses like Romano and Parmesean. Monterey Jack and Mozzarella are sometimes made with a portion of skim milk, blended with whole milk. A cheese made with skim milk tends to be much harder than that made with whole milk.

Q: What about raw milk?

Jess: Raw milk, whether from a cow or a goat, can be used to make many of our favorite and most familiar cheeses. Raw milk is milk that has not been heat treated to destroy any bacteria present. Many of the bacteria and enzymes present in raw milk are beneficial to the cheesemaking process, so much so that you can reduce the ammount of starter that is used when making cheese with raw milk.

Many of the lactobacillis and other bacteria present in starter culture are native to raw milk, so you do not need to add as much starter as you would when making cheese with pasteurized milk. Enzymes present in raw milk contribute to the complexity of flavor and enhance the flavor of the cheese as it ages.

It is very important to be sure that the milk you are using is from healthy animals and has been treated well. Raw milk comes out of the animal at roughly 100 degrees, and is a perfect, nutritious medium for breeding bacteria, both good and bad. Milk that is improperly handled can contain pathogens such as Salmonella, Staphylococcus aureus, Campylobacter, Clostridia, and Lysteria monocytogenes. These organisms can cause serious illness, and even, in rare cases, death. Tainted milk can transmit infection between animal and human; if the animal has an infection in her udder, it can cause a corresponding infection in the throat of someone who ingests the tainted milk. It's important to know and trust the source of any milk you are using, but this is especially true of raw milk.

Q: So what's the difference between pasteurized and ultra pasteurized milk?

Jess: Pasteurized milk has been heat-treated to kill all the bacteria present in the milk. This increases it's storage life, and decreases the risk of food-borne illnesses. The downside of this is that it also damages the proteins and enzymes present in raw milk, thereby necessitating the addition of other ingredients, such as calcium chloride and/or lipase, to make up for the changes. However, this is a small price to pay and is not particularly troublesome to the home cheesemaker. Pasteurization temperatures vary; if the milk is pasteurized at at 145 degrees, it is held there for 30 minutes. This is the goal if you are attempting to pasteurize milk at home. More recently, with the advent of more sensitive technology in commercial settings, milk can be pasteurized at 161 degrees and held there for 15 seconds. Either of these methods leave a milk that can be safely and easily used to make cheese.

Ultra-pasteurized milk, on the other hand, is milk that has been heated to 191 degrees for at least 1 second. While this method destroys all of the organisms present in milk, it also damages the protein structure of the milk so greatly that it cannot form a curd. It also affects the flavor of milk, giving it a cooked taste - and no wonder, It was nearly boiling! The only advantage of treating milk this way, is to the processors and distributors; ultra-pasteurized milk has a longer storage life before it has been opened, so it can be shipped longer distances.

Q: What is homogenized milk?

Jess: Most cow's milk that comes from the grocery store is homogenized at the same time that it is pasteurized; the process entails heating and pressing the milk through a series of progressively smaller screens to break up all of the butterfat globules into uniformly sized particles. Cow's milk is composed of differently sized fat globules; the larger globules are the cream, which, left to sit, will rise to the top.

Homogenization makes the particles homogenous, meaning the same; the broken globules are distributed throughout the milk and do not rise to the top after they have been processed. Homogenization alters the protein network that helps the milk fat rise to the top. The fat molecules are also somewhat damaged in this process, and are more susceptible to breakdown by enzymes. In cheesemaking, homogenized milk produces a curd that is weaker than cream-top milk. (The addition of calcium chloride helps to mitigate this effect.) If you have a choice when you purchase milk to make cheese, choose cream-top milk over homogenized. Either will work, however you will have to treat curds made from homogenized milk more gently.

Goat's milk is often referred to as "naturally homogenized." In reality, what this means is that the fat molecules in goats milk are all the same size, and mechanical homogenization is not necessary. This is why a cream-top does not form on the top of goat's milk as it does with cow's milk.

Q: Can I use a goat's milk in a recipe that calls for cow's?

Jess: Yes. Goat's milk is naturally more acidic than cow's, so you may notice a slight reduction in the ripening times. Goat's milk may produce a slightly softer curd than that of cow's; if this appears to be an issue in your cheesemaking you may want to add additional CaCl, as you would for a pasteurized or homogenized cheese. Also, it's worth noting that because goat's milk has no carotene, it will produce a pure white, rather than yellow or orange cheese.

Any hard cheese, such as a cheddar, made with goat's milk, will have a 'goaty' flavor. This is due to the caprylic, capric, and caproic (phew!) fatty acids that are found in goat's milk.

Over to You...

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