An Introduction to Milk

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

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

Goat’s Milk

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

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…

  1. Kindstedt, Paul. American Farmstead Cheese: The Complete Guide to Making and Selling Artisan Cheeses. 2005. P. 38-53

  2. Valenze, Deborah. Milk: A Local and Global History. 2011. P 18-19

Introducing Cheese 411

our mission at counter culture is to connect cheese professionals directly with experts, professional resources, community growth and other development opportunities. 

With our new cheese 411 page, we're taking this mission to the next level!

The goal: to answer any and all of your cheese, charcuterie and career questions, like "Does this new merchandising display make sense?" or "What's next in my career and how do I get there?"

So next time you need a nudge in the right direction, fill out a cheese 411 request, and you'll hear directly the counter culture staff, or one of our partners or other folks we know who work in the biz. 


Oh... and tell your friends, too!


How to travel as a cheesemonger


As a cheesemonger, you travel the world through your palate. You help transport customers from counter to farm and make-room with stories of faraway pastures and generational tales of cheesemaking.  

But actually traveling as a cheesemonger is (let’s face it) really hard.  Between your unpredictable schedule and hourly salary, resources can be tight. So how do you take your cheese knowledge to the next level and visit the farms, cheesemakers and shops you always talk about?

Here are some tips we’ve put together to help you fit travel into your cheese career...

Apply for scholarships or contests

There are yearly scholarships out there with the specific goal of bridging the gap between American and European cheese professionals (check out our Resources page for more info).

Some scholarships are competitive and may require CCP certification or a longer history of working with cheese. If you’re relatively new to working with cheese (less than a couple of years), you may consider entering a contest.

Right now, for example, Uncommon Flavors of Europe, an educational initiative sponsored by the European Union, is running a contest to send Americans cheesemongers to Italy. Visit to learn more about the three Uncommon Flavors of Europe partner products (Asiago PDO, Pecorino Romano PDO and Speck Alto Adige PGI) and complete a quiz to earn entries in a contest for a trip to visit the production zones.

Ask your distributors

Your distributors or friends who work in distribution (read: people you can meet at counter culture!) can be an invaluable source of info for contests and travel planning. Distributors often host merchandising competitions or may know about contests sponsored by other organizations.

On the planning front, a distributor may be coordinating their own trip and can offer personal tips or share an itinerary. Or, they can help put you in touch with their producers so you can plan your trip on your own.

If you’ve always been a big fan of Gruyere AOP, why not connect with  the producers of the Gruyere AOP you sell? They’re invested in helping you learn more, so be curious and don’t be shy!

Travel local (before making that big trip abroad)

So maybe Europe is a couple of years away for you— that’s totally okay! It is just as valuable to learn about cheeses being made locally and much easier to plan.

Use your shop’s connections to talk with cheesemakers you work with.Often times, cheesemakers are more than happy to show you their operation.When you stay local,you may even be able to fit a mini-cheese tour on your regular days off — no vacation days needed!

Cheese festivals are another way to meet many cheesemakers at once.  Take advantage of festivals in your area (or in other places around the US if you’re able to travel farther), and plan excursions to visit a few of the makers in the surrounding areas.  While you’re at it, visit other cheese shops, too.

Once you’re abroad , stay for a while


The greatest expense in a European cheesecation is the airfare, so why not plan a longer trip and visit multiple regions while you’re there? You’d be surprised how close things are by train or car!  Did you know you can get to the Fontina DOP cooperative from a fermier Reblochon DOP producer in an hour or so?

Can you be an effective cheesemonger without having travelled to see cheesemaking in action? Yes. But will it forever change your life to meet the people, animals and land that feed your passion for cheese? Absolutely!



Once you do make it abroad,  tag us in your photos (@counterculturecheese) and let us know what you’ve learned!

counter culture recipe: Ricotta Dumplings

Our culinary speciality, Rachel Freier, shared her recipe for Ricotta Dumplings at counter culture Charlotte using the lusciously creamy sheep's milk ricotta from Sardinia's Central Formaggi.

Photo by:  The Mobile Monger


Ricotta Dumplings

1 cup Ricotta (drained)
½ cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano
3 eggs
¼ cup flour (adjust) + 1/2 cup flour for dusting
¼ tsp salt + ¼ tsp salt for water
Pepper to taste
2 tbsp butter
fresh herbs

Drain the ricotta in a cheesecloth overnight or at least a few hours prior to use. You want to expel as much moisture as possible.

Once the ricotta is drained, put it in a food processor with ½ cup Parmigiano. Pulse to blend.

Add eggs, and pulse to mix. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Once eggs and cheese are mixed, sprinkle ¼ cup of flour on top, and pulse to incorporate. You are looking for a moist texture, yet not loose. Add more flour to achieve a drier mix if your ricotta was higher in moisture.

Bring salted water to a boil, then lower the boil to a low simmer. Using 2 large soup spoons, quenelle the batter into a plump egg shape dumpling and drop the dumplings gently into the simmering water. They will sink to the bottom then float to the top.  Once they have floated to top, let them cook for 3-4 minutes until they are firm enough to take out. Dont over crowd the pot since they are delicate until they firm up.

Use a slotted spoon to remove the dumplings. You may enjoy them straight from the pot or saute them in some butter for a dumpling snack.

Heat up butter in a pan, add dumplings and brown lightly on each side (use a rubber spatula to maneuver them since they will be delicate).

Serve garnished with your favorite fresh herb and a drizzle of butter from the pan.

Lactic Acid vs. Rennet Coagulation

There were many great questions asked by attendees at counter culture Charlotte a few weeks ago (#countercultureCLT).  Here, we deep dive into one: what's the difference between lactic acid and rennet coagulation?

Lactic Acid Fermented Cheese - Photo by:  The Mobile Monger

Lactic Acid Fermented Cheese - Photo by: The Mobile Monger

To understand the difference between lactic acid coagulation and rennet coagulation, first you’ll need to understand the composition of milk, and how it changes as it’s transformed into curd. 

Milk is basically water with solids suspended in it—fat globules, proteins, minerals, vitamins, and enzymes. To make milk into cheese, the first step is to separate a good portion of those solid components from the water in a controlled way: to “curdle” the milk. 

We can do that by changing the structure of specific types of milk proteins. Called casein proteins, they organize themselves into balls called micelles that float around in the milk. Surrounding the outside of each micelle, there are specific types of casein protein molecules, called kappa caseins, that look like little hairs. They have a negative charge, so the micelles repel one other while suspended in the liquid—never bonding together, never falling apart. 

Until! We add a magic ingredient that breaks down the micelle structures and reorganizes the proteins into a firm network. Well, there are actually two magic ingredients that achieve this: acid and rennet. And they both work in different ways. 

Acid neutralizes the negative charge of those kappa casein molecules, which causes the micelles to break down until the casein proteins re-organize themselves into a kind of loose network. You’ve seen this happen if you’ve squirted lemon juice or citric acid into milk; it curdles right away. But cheesemakers have another method of acidifying milk: lactic acid bacteria. These little buggers consume lactose (milk sugar) and convert it into lactic acid. Add them to milk and leave it at a lukewarm temperature over several hours to a couple of days, and it’ll become acidic enough that it transforms into a “lactic” curd. 

There’s a second method of coagulating milk, though, which most cheesemakers use—often in conjunction with lactic acid bacteria. The secret is an enzyme called chymosin, the active ingredient in rennet—which is derived from the stomach of young ruminants. It works in a different way than the acid; instead of neutralizing the negative charge, of those little hairs, it chops them off. With their new haircuts the micelles are let loose, and float towards one another to form a sturdy protein network. 

The networks that form from both acid and rennet coagulation trap delicious fat globules and minerals inside, as well as a bunch of liquid—so in either case, the cheesemaker’s next step is to set more of that liquid free, and to manipulate the moisture content, pH, and size of the curd (which all varies according to the recipe). 

Curd made from lactic acid bacteria is very loose and delicate. With a higher acidity, much of the calcium that would otherwise support a firm network runs off with its whey. One can’t do much with this type of curd, aside from gently scooping or pouring it into cheesecloths or molds, leaving the whey to drain slowly. Cheeses made in this way are soft, delicate, high-moisture, acidic products that are usually consumed young.

Rennet curd is firmer; it’s more robust. The maker can do more with it, can take more steps to ensure that the liquid whey is separated from solid curd. The strength of rennet curd allows us to chop it into little pieces (curds), stir the curds around, and do all kinds of other fancy additional steps. Those subsequent options result in endless variety in recipe potential. That’s why almost all cheesemakers use rennet—particularly in any firm cheese that needs to be aged.  

Cheeses made with rennet coagulation - Photo by:  The Mobile Monger

Cheeses made with rennet coagulation - Photo by: The Mobile Monger