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Milk for Cheesemaking: An Overview


When choosing milk for cheesemaking, it helps to have a basic knowledge of the fundamental makeup of milk and the variations within different kinds and forms of milk.

Parts of Milk

Milk is made up of four main components:

Water is the main ingredient in milk. Cow milk is 87% water, goat milk is 88% water, and sheep milk is 82% water. The cheesemaker’s goal is to remove a very large portion of the water content within milk to make cheese. The water content of a finished cheese is the main factor in the shelf life or aging period of that cheese.

Lactose is a type of sugar found exclusively in milk and is transformed by the cultures you add during the cheesemaking process into lactic acids and carbon dioxide.

Lipids (or butterfat) are fat globules and small proteins in the milk, which contribute to the opaque white color in milk. Sometimes, vitamin-rich lipids will contain carotene, which will cause the milk to look slightly yellow or orange. The actual level of butterfat in your milk depends on the type of milk you have chosen to use, and it also depends largely on the source animal’s breed, weight, and diet within the last week or so. Milk fat is extremely important in the cheesemaking process, for the triglycerides contain 98% of the overall milk fat, and they will be broken down to free some of those fatty acid compounds which help your cheese develop to its full flavor potential.

Proteins within milk consist of whey proteins and caseins, or milk proteins. The most important factor of this duo is the caseins, which will bind together to play a main role in the solidification of your milk during the cheesemaking process. Whey proteins are contained in the yellow, watery whey.

Types of Milk

Cow milk is the most common type of milk used in cheesemaking and is also the milk with the most developed arsenal of recipes and styles of cheese. It is sweet, creamy, and rich with a fat content generally between 3.5% and 4.4%. The lactose in cow milk is usually around 4.5%.

Goat milk is slightly different from cow milk, being bit more on the tangy side of milk flavors. Sometimes it can taste like a barnyard, or just plain goaty. Cooling the milk quickly and thoroughly immediately upon milking helps to diminish these flavors and bring out the fine flavor of this milk. Goat milk is around 88% water, 3.9% lactose, and 2.5% proteins. Goat milk can also have a higher fat content than cow milk, but the actual fat globules within the milk are smaller, and stay suspended in the milk more easily, making them rise to the top much more slowly than you will see in cow milk.

Sheep milk is a richer milk all around, weighing in at 82% water, 6.5% lipids, 4.5% lactose and 5.5% protein. Sheep milk is richer even than the milk of Jersey cows. It has been described as golden and fatty, and it can have a bit of a musky sheep flavor, even if it is chilled well. Some very, very excellent cheeses can be made from sheep’s milk though. If you plan on getting the milk from your own animal by hand, be aware that they give less milk generally than goats and can be a bit ornery when you go to get it from them. There are a few factors that will affect the milk you have, making the percentages here and the standardized percentages used in fancy cheese formulas vary just a bit:

  • Diet of the milk animal

  • Breed of the milk animal

  • Health of the milk animal

  • Milking methods

  • Storage methods

  • Stage of lactation (how long after calving the milk was produced)

  • Time of year


Knowing about the milk you are starting your cheesemaking projects with will help you to foresee any problems or overcome minor issues during cheesemaking and you will be one step closer to achieving a healthy, delicious cheese, whatever the milk may be.


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Milk for Cheesemaking

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