When it comes to cheesemaking, milk is the key ingredient. And when I say milk, I mean that white creamy substance that comes from a mammal. Not the white substance you might squeeze from an almond. That kind of “milk” is imitating, or substituting for actual milk. And cheeses made with those milk substitutes aren’t really cheese – they’re imitating cheese.
Cow milk is the most commonly used milk in the United States for both drinking and for cheesemaking, but any type of milk can turn into cheese. You may be familiar with goat milk cheeses and sheep milk cheeses but did you know that in some cultures cheese is made with reindeer milk, moose milk, yak milk, and even wild donkey milk?
In fact, most cheeses could be made out of just about any milk. Since I own goats, I have a steady supply of fresh goat milk so I made just about any kind of cheese out of goat milk: goat milk cheddars, goat brie & camembert, goat blues, goat colby…well, you get the idea. So while it’s true that you can make just about any kind of cheese out of any kind of milk, some cheeses are traditionally made from a certain type of milk and when they stray from that we call them something different. For instance, mozzarella is typically a cow milk cheese but when we make it out of water buffalo milk, we call it Buffalo Mozzarella.
And then there are some cheeses that MUST be made out of a certain milk in order to call them by their name, such as Chevre – the classic soft goat cheese. Chevre literally means goat so you can’t make it out of cow’s milk and call it Chevre. What an insult to the goats that would be! That said, you can follow a Chevre recipe using cow’s milk and get a very lovely cheese. You’ll just have to call it something else…perhaps Fromage Blanc?
So while milk is the key ingredient to all real cheese, and all milks could be made into any type of cheese, there are differences between the milks of different species. They’re different in calories, in fat and protein content, in how much calcium as well as other vitamins and minerals they provide, and even in how much lactose is in them. So, you can’t always substitute one milk for another in a recipe and expect the exact same results. One example of this is with the use of rennet in cheesemaking. Rennet is species-specific, meaning different types of milk need more or less rennet to achieve the proper coagulation.
What’s more, even within a single species, different breeds might have pretty different milks. For example, I raise Nubian dairy goats and they are known for having a milder, higher butterfat milk than many of the other common dairy goat breeds. Jersey cows are also known to have much higher butterfat than other breeds of cows. On top of that, throughout the lactation cycle, milk can vary greatly so your cheesemaking might take a different turn at the end of the season than it did at the beginning of the season, even if the milk you’re using is coming from the exact same animal!
And we haven’t even mentioned the processes we do to milk yet. Raw milk is going to behave differently than pasteurized milk, and homogenized milk will produced different results than cream top varieties. These will all make cheese, but the processes and results may be highly variable.
So, as you can see, milk is the wildcard in cheesemaking! When my students reach out to me for troubleshooting on a particular cheese they’re making, the first question I’m always going to ask is “what milk did you use?” Because that’s going to be the biggest variable in what’s happening in your cheesemaking pot or aging caves!
submitted by Kate Johnson