I’m often asked what is the best milk for cheese making and the short answer is “I’m really not sure.” There are so many variables to consider and so many different cheeses out there that a lot of it can be down to personal preference. Some people go crazy for a delicious crumbly feta in a Greek salad, other people love a Manchego made from ewe’s milk. There is a bewildering amount of choice out there and it can get confusing. There isn’t a wrong answer as such - but there are steps you can take when selecting your milk to ensure you are giving your cheese making process the best possible start.
Using the best quality milk you can get is a good start. Like cooking with a good wine, the better quality milk you use, the better quality cheese you’ll end up with. You get far more differences in flavour, experimenting with the milk you use than say trying a different cheese culture. Always try to get the freshest milk you can lay your hands on and if you have your own herd or perhaps a goat that you are milking, ensure that good standards of hygiene are observed. Keep your milk as clean as possible and use it when it is as fresh as possible and you’ll be well on the way to making a great cheese.
A lot of cheeses out there are made from raw milk. Whilst this has certain benefits, which I will get into later, it is not without its risks and using unpasteurised milk means that if not careful, you can run the risk of nasties such as Listeria and Salmonella being present in the milk. A lot of cheese makers out there that produce raw milk cheeses tend to select cheese types that are aged for longer, reducing the risk, as a lot of the potentially harmful bacteria have died off after the prolonged aging period.
One of the reasons cheese producers like to use raw milk is down to it’s excellent coagulation properties. Heat treatments like pasteurisation and other treatments such as homogenisation (where the milk is blasted through tiny nozzles to break up the fat globules ensuring the cream is mixed evenly throughout the milk and extending the shelf life), damage the structure of the milk and in particular a protein called Casein. This Casein helps form a strong curd. There are steps you can take to improve or reduce this damage and in doing so, have more success with your cheese production.
Avoid UHT milk. Ultra heat treated milk has really done a number on the proteins in the milk and can deactivate the lactose preventing the culture from doing it’s work. The addition of Lactic acid can fix this issue (if UHT is the only milk available). The same can be said for powdered milk. Add Calcium Chloride. This is great for milk that has been homogenised (it is also very often added to goat’s milk which is naturally homogenised) or had a lot of heat treatments. Calcium Chloride can help rebalance the calcium damaged during these processes leading to a stronger curd and a higher yield. Using unhomogenised milk means less damage to the proteins and generally improves the chance of forming a good curd.
Lastly, pasteurisation. If you are using pasteurised milk - and personally I would recommend that you do so, the way that the milk is pasteurised has a great bearing on the finished milk. Most milk is pasteurised at between 72-74°C and held at this temp for 20 seconds. This method can as mentioned previously damage the structure of the milk. A far better method, if possible, is to pasteurise the milk at a lower temperature, typically 63°C for 30 minutes. This slower, more gentle treatment of the milk leaves you with a finished milk that although pasteurised acts more akin to raw milk in structure and flavour and is much better for cheese making.
The final step is to decide what type of cheese you wish to make as the milk you will use will change. Mozzarella is traditionally made from Buffalo milk for example. A donkey milk cheese from Serbia became famous for becoming the world’s most expensive cheese. Other more unusual cheeses come from milk from moose, camel, reindeer and horses. I’ll mention the more common one’s below in more detail.
Cow’s Milk: This milk is usually quite creamy and sweet and has a fat content of about 3.5%. The most common milk around and whilst pretty low in fat content, it is cheap to buy and available all year round. Most milk in Europe comes from Fresian cows and in North America from Holstein cows. Milk from Jersey cows is a lot creamier and has a butterfat content of around 4%. Also great for cheese making!
Goat’s Milk: Goat’s milk has small fat globules compared to cows meaning it is effectively naturally homogenised. It lends itself better to soft cheeses - though it is perfectly possible to produce a decent hard cheese from goat’s milk. It produces a lighter colour cheese than other animals. This is because goats are so efficient when grazing that any carotene they consume is immediately converted into vitamin A. Cow’s are not so efficient meaning their milk has a more yellow tinge to it. This milk freezes well too. Many lactose intolerant people find they can stomach milk and cheese from goats.
Sheep Milk: This milk is a rich golden colour and has a very high butterfat content around 7-8%. Sheep milk is high in protein but produces much lower volumes. The upside is that you get a higher yield per gallon and need less rennet too. This milk also freezes well - but beware if you are lactose intolerant this milk isn’t for you. This milk can be difficult to source as it is not as common as cow and goat’s milk.
With the increase in vegan cheeses on the market there are a few plant based milks on the market, used to produce ever improving vegan cheeses. Soy milk, cashew milk, almond milk and other grain and nut based milks are all now being commonly used to produce great tasting vegan cheeses.