In our cheesemaking class last week we had a milk tasting, which was surprisingly eye-opening. The contrast between cow’s milk in four different states--raw, pasteurized, pasteurized/homogenized, and ultrapasturized—really showed up when we tasted them one after the other.
The raw milk, in its original form from a Jersey cow, was our first taste and seriously intense in flavor. Everything was there in the glass. The pasture was in there. The wind was in there. I was a baby calf drinking it. And yet, I found the flavor a little wild for my sheltered palate’s comfort zone, because I’m used to pasteurized milk. Imagine the benefits of that flavor complexity for cheesemaking, though!
Next we tasted pasturized milk, which is raw milk that has been heated to kill bacteria, which can make it safer by killing potentially harmful bacteria, but it also kills some of the extra flavors and potentially beneficial bacteria, too. Drinking milk that is not pasteurized, in its raw form, is controversial. Anyway, that’s a whole different topic. As far as flavor goes, this milk, which was pasteurized by the instructor on the stovetop, tasted less “interesting” than the raw milk but was still creamy and lush. Pasturized/not homogenized milk is sometimes called "cream line" milk because after sitting awhile, the cream rises to the top and needs to be re-shaken if you want to incorporate it back in.
Further altering milk’s flavor is homogenization, which is the act of breaking up and dispersing (through a tiny tube) fat globules throughout the milk. I don’t know if it was the power of suggestion, but our third taste, the homogenized milk, didn’t taste quite as good to me as the pasteurized-only milk. I went home later and compared my cream-line (i.e., not homogenized) pasteurized milk and my husband’s organic pasteurized/homogenized milk, and I preferred mine. I asked my husband to try the two in a blind taste test, and he could identify which one was not homogenized and said that it tasted richer.
By the way, I just now went to the fridge to double check if I could taste the difference, and I can. I just drank (only) 1% fat cream-line milk versus some full-fat homogenized milk. Before I poured the cream-line, I shook it up, as always, to re-integrate the cream/fat into the milk. Surprisingly, the two milks, despite the difference in fat content, tasted equally rich. The cream-line tasted like pure, perfect, childhood milk. Sitting in a tree with a plate of cookies. Somehow the homogenized milk tasted…corporate. What am I saying? I don’t know. There was a different aftertaste and it reminded me of office buildings.
Meanwhile, back at the class, our fourth glass to taste was ultrapasturized milk. Ultrapasturization uses even higher heat than pasteurization and kills all organisms in milk. It was the clear loser in flavor, a sad-clown letdown compared to the others. Sure, you can store it for months. You can also store watered-down Elmer’s glue for months. You can’t make cheese with glue or with ultrapasturized milk.
In terms of cheesemaking, raw milk seems to be a winner. Because it still contains so much beneficial bacteria, less needs to be added to make good cheese. In U.S. stores, cheese made from raw milk must be aged for 60 days or longer before it is sold, to be fully rid of potential harmful bacteria. If you make cheese with pasteurized milk, you’ll need to have a bacterial starter for most cheese recipes. If you use homogenized milk, your curd is softer (less firm) and you might need to adjust a recipe for this as well by adding calcium chloride.
Myself, I’ll probably be making cheese with pasteurized milk (not homogenized) and plan to add more bacterial starter. If I ever get a good, affordable source of raw milk—as in, healthy, grass-fed cows—I’ll do that. But for now, look out, pasteurized milk. I’m going to cheddar you. Soon.