Milk is the cornerstone of cheese. Humans have been preserving milk for centuries. Cows, sheep, goats, and occasionally buffalo are used around the world to create a plethora of cheeses. At the heart of it, milk is made of four components other than water: fat, protein, lactose, and minerals.
Milks from different animals create different results. Here, I’ll focus on the fundamental differences between milks, what they’re used for, and the flavor compounds they bring to cheese. Domestic milking animals are bred around the world for different purposes, so I’ve also included different breeds typically associated with each milk type.
Cow’s milk is the most commonly used and consumed in the United States. It is familiar and readily available. Every grocery store carries cow’s milk, along with many options for cow’s milk cheese. It is mild in flavor and when aged into cheese, it can range in texture from runny and gooey to firm and crystalline.
Cow’s milk contains the most lactose of the milk types used for cheesemaking, and though most of it is converted to lactic acid by starter cultures, leftover lactose can remain in younger cow’s milk cheeses like brie and mozzarella.
A special quality of cow’s milk is that it is loaded with beta-carotene when the cows are grass-fed. That’s what is responsible for the pale yellow color of grass-fed cheeses. When grass is eaten, the chlorophyll is converted to beta-carotene¹.
Color: creamy, warm white to a butter yellow
Examples: Brie, Parmigiano Reggiano, Gruyère, Gouda, Jasper Hill Harbison, Sequatchie Cove Shakerag Blue, Meadow Creek Grayson
Flavor: buttery, grassy, mild, nutty
Common Breeds used: Holstein, Jersey, Guernsey, Ayrshire, Brown Swiss
As a cheesemonger, I find that goat’s milk is the most polarizing milk type with customers. People tend to only know about fresh goat’s milk cheese, otherwise known as chèvre. If they don’t like chèvre, customers often write off goat’s milk cheese altogether. Contrary to popular belief, goat’s milk—though most commonly made as soft and young chèvre—can also be aged, much like cow’s milk counterparts. The longer goat’s milk ages, the less of the characteristic goat tang is present; instead it tends to take on nutty, mellow notes.
Goat’s milk is the easiest on the stomach as well. It has the least amount of lactose and fat, making it easier to digest¹. Because the fat globules in goat’s milk are naturally smaller than those in other types of milk, they absorb more easily in the stomach.
Goats create much less milk than cows but also have specific milking cycles that correspond with the seasons. While cows can calve year round, goats kid in early spring (usually mid-late March), ending their milking cycle in late autumn before they lie dormant for the winter. What does this mean for consumers? That fresh goat cheese is more available in certain seasons than others. For example, many US goat dairies like Yellow Springs Farm only make certain cheeses seasonally to correspond with goats’ milking cycles.
Color: cool bright white
Examples: Bûcheron, La Dama Sagrada, Blu di Capra, Cypress Grove Humboldt Fog, Yellow Springs Farm Black Diamond, FireFly Farms Black and Blue
Flavor: fresh, bright, and tangy when young; mellow and nutty with age, often followed by a heat in the back of the jaw.
Common Breeds Used: Nubian, LaMancha, Saanen, Alpine, Toggenburg,Oberhasli
Sheep’s milk, in my opinion, is one of the least understood and appreciated milks out there. Since it has a distinctive sweetness, I like to recommend sheep’s milk cheeses to people who don’t usually like goat’s milk cheeses. It has the highest fat content and also the highest amount of protein and minerals, making it much more nutritious than other milk types. Like goat’s milk, it is easy to digest.
Like goats, sheep have a rigid breeding and milking schedule. They only breed in the fall, meaning that sheep milk is scarce from October to March—a big reason why sheep’s milk cheeses tend to be more expensive than cow’s milk counterparts.
Sheep’s milk is often aged, though there are some younger cheeses out there as well. One example of a traditional fresh sheep’s milk cheese is feta. Traditionally, feta is made from sheep’s milk and the sweet creaminess of the milk is unlike any feta you’ve previously tried. Cow’s milk feta—which is more common in the United States— is dry and salty, with an enzyme added to make it taste more like sheep’s milk feta. But try sheep feta, and you’ll never go back to cow, I promise.
Color: cool white when young; ecru when aged
Examples: Manchego, Pecorino Romano, Roquefort, Ossau Iraty, Petit Basque, Green Dirt Prairie Tomme, Bellwether Farms Basket Ricotta, Bleating Heart Fat Bottom Girl
Flavor: savory, sweet, nutty; caramelized when aged
Common Breeds Used: East Friesian, Lacaune, Manchega, Awassi, Icelandic, British Milk Sheep
Water Buffalo Milk
Buffalo milk is a rare jewel in the cheesemaking world. It is much higher in fat than cow’s milk, but also lower in cholesterol. What this means is that buffalo milk is much richer, thicker, and creamier than cow’s milk. For this reason, the most common form of buffalo milk cheese found in the United States is mozzarella and burrata. Buffalo mozzarella is much softer, more fragile, and creamier than cow’s milk mozzarella and is considered the gold standard of Italian mozzarella. Buffalo milk also spoils much faster. It breaks down quicker, loses its characteristic yeasty sweet-tart flavor and gains an unpleasant sour flavor after about a week.
But there are way more cheeses out there beyond those two. Buffalo milk is the most popular milk in Pakistan, India (which has 50 percent of the world’s buffalo), and Italy. Water Buffalo create on average about 12-18 lb of milk a day (compared with 50-60 lb for a Holstein cow), so their output of milk is about the same as a goat but feeding requires about the same for a large cow. There are a handful of aged buffalo milk cheeses out there, though. Probably the most famous is Quadrello di Bufala from Italy. It has a texture much like Taleggio and its paste has a creamy and musty flavor. There is also a Quadrello style cheese that is aged in the US at Crown Finish Caves in Brooklyn called Bufarolo that has a damp cellar kind of flavor, much like Quadrello di Bufala.
Since buffalo milk is harder to find, its cheeses often fetch higher prices than cow’s milk cheeses, but they are worth the splurge..
Color: bright white
Examples: Stracciatella, Quadrello di Bufala, Mozzarella, Burrata, Ghee, Bleating Heart Buff Blue, Bufarolo
Flavor: sweet, a little tart, yeasty, musty, buttery
Common Breeds Used: Murrah, Italian Mediterranean
Less Common Milks
Reindeer: Scandinavia has a handful of reindeer milk cheeses, like Finland’s squeaky, halloumi-style Leipäjuusto. Reindeer milk, like buffalo milk, is high in fat.
Donkey: Donkeys don’t create much milk outside of feeding their foals, and their milk lacks many caseins, which help turn the milk from liquid to solid when creating cheese. Accordingly, the rarest and most expensive cheese in the world—fetching upwards of $500 per pound— is made from donkey milk. This cheese, from Serbia, which is made by in Serbia by Slobodan Simić, is called Magareći Sir. It is said to have a rich, nutty, and earthy flavor.
Yak: A fun fact: yak milk curds are what fueled Genghis Khan’s army. The curd, called kurut, was much lighter to carry than other provisions, so it was an easy source of nutrition for the soldiers². In the Himalayas, the traditional cheese is called Chhurpi, made from yak milk. It is similar to Italian ricotta and can be fresh or aged. It has a mild, neutral flavor, but it is often left to ferment to develop a more sour, tangy taste.
Moose: Elk House Farm in Bjurholm, Sweden is considered the only producer of moose milk cheese. Like donkey cheese, it is very rare and also runs very expensive. Each of Elk House Farm’s three varieties (a blue, a soft-ripened style, and a feta style) run for about $455 per pound.
Resources/For Further Reading…
Kindstedt, Paul. American Farmstead Cheese: The Complete Guide to Making and Selling Artisan Cheeses. 2005. P. 38-53
Valenze, Deborah. Milk: A Local and Global History. 2011. P 18-19