We are often asked if you can make cheese using raw milk. Yes you can but if you can't find raw milk, don't let that stop you from making cheese! When it comes to cheese making, there are benefits and drawbacks to both raw and pasteurized milks.
Benefits to Using Raw Milk
Your milk will be fresher. Raw milk is usually sold within 48 hours of coming out of the cow. This means a stronger curd and higher yields, since the bacteria and rennet that you introduce have very little bacterial competition.
Your cheese will have more flavor. Raw milk is nuanced. Like wine or raw honey, the flavor of milk varies throughout the season. Depending on the type of cheese you make, you'll be able to taste grass, clover, or alfalfa. Raw milk cheese will be sharper and have more of a cheesy “bite” as well.
You will (often) be able to meet your farmer... and his/her cows. In several states, raw milk sales are legal at the “farm gate” only. This may seem like a drawback, but it's a benefit! You can get to know your cows and if you want to get REALLY meticulous, you can vary the type of cheese you make based on what the cows have been eating.
Drawbacks to Using Raw Milk
Availability. Raw milk is usually much more difficult to find than pasteurized. In some states, you won't be able to find it at all, and in others you may have to drive long distances to pick it up. The federal government has been cracking down on raw milk producers, so even if you find raw milk in your state, if the farm is not operating strictly under the law, your producer could be shut down without notice.
Expense. Raw milk is not cheap. In most states it is at least twice as expensive to buy raw milk as it is to buy pasteurized.
Bacterial competition. Raw milk comes with its own set of beneficial bacteria, and if your milk is a few days old or wasn't chilled down quickly enough before you bought it, that bacterial count can be high. This means that the culture that you introduce to make your cheese could have some hefty competition, which can lead to cheese with an “off” flavor, or cheese that has a different flavor than you expect.
Risk. Although most people who consume raw milk do not feel that raw milk is inherently dangerous, there are risks to everything and people have become sick from raw milk on occasion. Aged cheeses shouldn't cause any problems, because it is difficult for pathogenic bacteria to live in something that's aged for over 60 days. But for fresh cheeses, raw milk can carry some risks. Talk to your farmer, do your research, and decide whether or not these risks are worth it.
Benefits to Using Pasteurized Milk
It's widely available. Pasteurized milk can be found at any grocery store... just don't use Ultra High Temperature pasteurized milk (a.k.a UHT, ultra-pasteurized). Your curd will not set.
It's inexpensive. In most states, organic milk is $5 or less per gallon.
It's a blank slate, bacterially speaking. Milk that has been pasteurized contains no bacteria, beneficial or pathogenic. This means that whatever culture you add has no competition and can propagate freely. This can lead to a more consistently flavored cheese.
Drawbacks to Using Pasteurized Milk
Your cheese will not be as flavorful. There is just nothing like a delicious, aged raw cheese. Pasteurized cheese cannot compete. A raw cheese is a truly living food, full of enzymes and good bacteria. A pasteurized cheese contains enough good bacteria to turn it into cheese, but it will never have the same amount of flavor and nuance that a raw cheese does.
Unpredictability. Your milk may or may not have been pasteurized at a high temperature. If it was heated past 165°F, the proteins are denatured (cooked) and won't make good cheese. Your curds will be very soft and may not hold together.
Risk. The largest outbreak of dairy-related foodborne illness was in the mid 1980s. Almost 20,000 people became sick with salmonella from improperly pasteurized milk. Milk that is designed to be consumed raw is processed with cleanliness and health in mind. Milk that is designed to be pasteurized may be from sick or dirty animals, and is transported in huge trucks to a central location for pasteurization. If something goes wrong or the temperature gauge on the pasteurizer doesn't work properly, there is a potential for a lot of people to become ill.
Choosing a milk for your cheese making endeavors can be tough. We urge you to do your research, talk to farmers and other local cheese makers, and make the decision that is best for your family. Good luck, and have fun!