Because milk varies not only by species but also by breed, it's difficult to make generalizations about fat, protein, and mineral composition in cow milk. But there are several significant points that can be safely noted that makes cow milk and the cheeses it produces unique.
- Cow milk can be considered the most versatile of milk types when it comes to cheesemaking. It can be made into numerous styles, and its flavor profile-- buttery, creamy, and rich-- provides an excellent backdrop to a wider range of techniques than sheep or goat milk. When it ages-- in cheese form, that is, not in the milk carton-- it can intensify and sweeten into caramelly, intensely sweet flavors, as in aged goudas, or can become savory and nutty, as in the case of gruyere.
- With such tremendous ability to produce mass quantities of milk (up to 120 pounds, or 60 pints) of milk per day, cows will most often be responsible for cheeses of a larger format (80+ pounds). Imagine how much milk it would require to make such a large cheese from a sheep or goat, who at lactational peak produce about five pounds and eight pounds a day, respectively.
- Cow milk differentiates itself from goat and sheep milk largely for its lack of one thing: short chain fatty acids. You should care about these short chain fatty acids, if only to make an impression at your next conversation over a cheese board. See, fatty acids are one component of milk, or, more specifically, milkfat. They're solely responsible for the strong aromas and piquant flavors in cheese. So cheeses made from cow's milk don't have the peppery quality of goat cheese and the sometimes gamey, strong flavors of sheep milk cheese.
- Unlike its sheep or goat milk counterparts, cow milk cheese contains beta-carotene, which can lend a yellow or orange hue to the cheese. Furthermore, cow milk is greatly influenced by the season, and even more so if the cows are on grass, since beta-carotene lives in every blade of it. It's for this reason that sheep and goat milk cheeses are much more white (especially in fresher styles) in comparison to most cheese made with cow milk.
We love cow milk cheeses for so many reasons but especially because they're particularly sensitive to season changes, which makes them so dynamic and telling of the time at which they were made. And most importantly, the flavors that the milk produces in cheese form are so varied and downright delicious, in all incarnations. What's your favorite cow milk cheese? And do you have a preference for cow, sheep, or goat?
Nora Singley is an avid lover of cheese, and for some time she was a Cheesemonger and the Director of the Cheese Course at Murray's Cheese Shop in New York City. She is currently an assistant chef on The Martha Stewart Show.
Image: Flickr member Nostromoo licensed by Creative Commons.