The Four Milk Types of American Cheesemaking

The Four Milk Types of American Cheesemaking

Cheesemaking: Ancient Origins

As legend has it, the dawn of cheese came about when a goat farmer of antiquity was faced with a long journey through the desert. He created a makeshift canteen out of the lining of a slaughtered goat’s stomach, and filled it with cool goat milk to later drink. After long and tedious hours under the baring sun and over sizzling sands, the goat farmer finally allowed himself a drink. When he lifted his canteen to his mouth, he was rattled; instead of refreshing milk, clumpy cheese curds hit him in the face. Our goat farmer had unwittingly created cheese! Rennet, naturally occuring in the stomach of the ruminant animal, plus the heat and agitation of the journey, caused the milk turn into cheese curds – which of course he delighted in, replicated and shared far & wide.

As we sincerely convey to guests of Antonelli’s Cheese Shop and our Events program: there truly are no stupid questions. So in that spirit, what is milk, exactly? Quite simply, it is a white liquid produced by the mammary glands of mammals, and rennet is present so that when offspring drink their mother’s milk, the milk coagulates in the young one’s stomach, and sticks around longer for them to extract nutrients from it.


Got Milk?

When it comes to fine artisan cheese, the milk is everything. From Spanish milking parlors where Flamenco music softly pipes through, to the lush & verdant higher pastures of the Swiss Alps, diary animals respond accordingly to loving care – and it shows in their milk. Despite this scientifically certified fact, each kind of milk is different. Of the four milk types that the FDA has deemed acceptable for cheesemaking, cow is distinctive from water buffalo, and goat is different from sheep. Each type of milk produces a unique kind of cheese!

When planning menus for our Cheese Tray and Events programs, one of the primary factors Antonelli’s cheesemongers take into consideration is milk types: we believe the best menus reflect the broadest possible array of the four milk types.

The Four (Legal) Milk Types

Several different types of milk can legally be used to make cheese in the United States. At Antonelli’s Cheese Shop, we carry cheese made with the milk of them all. We don’t pick favorites, and we hope you can’t either! 

  • Cow
    • The lion’s share of cheese comes from cow's milk, as cows produce more milk than goats, sheep or water buffalo, generally resulting in a greater value
    • Cow milk cheeses possess a creamy, buttery & smooth quality, with less fat content than some other milk types. Grassy, sweet, and even earthy flavors can also be inherent to cow’s milk.
    • Cows produce about 12-20 gallons a day, making them by far the victors of volume. 
    • Cow’s milk cheese commonly have an ‘off-white’ hue, because their digestive systems do not process beta carotene in the grasses they munch.
    • Often the entry point for many a future cheese-lover, they are agreeable, enticing and extremely crave-worthy.
    • Cow's milk cheeses range from soft to hard, and attempts to define such styles as ‘cheddar’ or ‘gouda’ as exclusively the domain of cow’s milk won’t stand – cheesemaking is all about bending the rules to make magic!
    • Cow's milk cheese is arguably the most versatile — as it can take on a range of diverse flavors. For example, Alpine-style cheese can have an herbaceous, nutty character; aged gouda can have a sweet caramel flavor; clothbound cheddars can be earthy with a tang of mustard; and fresh mozzarella can have a clean and simple lactic taste. 
    • Fun Fact: Cows eat about 100 lbs of food and drink 50 gallons of water daily, and they have an acute sense of smell – they can smell something up to six miles away!
  • Goat
    • Goat cheese (or “chèvre”) delivers bold, almost ‘spicy’ sensations, and aromas can be quite distinctive, depending on factors such as affinage (aging) and diet. 
    • Despite their reputation, goats are selective eaters when they can afford to be, picking the most tender blades of grasses and stripping bark from trees.
    • Goats produce about 2 gallons of rich & super-nutritious milk per day, which is known for its bright and tangy flavor profile, often accentuated by citrus notes.
    • Goat’s milk cheese has a striking, distinctive white color because goats can handily digest and process the yellow beta-carotene found in grasses.
    • Goat milk contains lower lactose levels as compared to other milk types, making it easier to digest for many folks. It also has the lowest level of fat!
    • Goat milk cheeses have been shown to possess anti-inflammatory properties and could potentially act to decrease hunger-pangs. 
    • Like cow's milk cheeses, goat cheeses range from soft to hard. Most commonly, chèvre is presented in a log shape, often rolled in everything from dried fruits to herbs & spices.
    • Goat’s milk has a mildly acidic, zingy flavor that awakens your palate. As it ages, it can develop a sweet caramel finish.
  • Sheep 
    • If you’ve ever compared American supermarket feta with something like Essex Feta from Lesvos, Greece (recently presented by Antonelli’s Cheese Club) – you’ve experienced the power & magic of sheep milk cheese.
    • Especially ideal for cheesemaking, sheep milk provides cheesemaker’s with a fantastic milk-to-cheese ratio (about 3/4 pounds of cheese per gallon of milk). 
    • Often white-to-ivory in color, velvety sheep milk cheeses are rich, smooth, & sometimes sweet, with a dash of piquancy that hints at white pepper.
    • Sheep’s milk contains twice the amount of fat and proteins than that of cow’s or goat’s milk, resulting in a decadent, palate coating texture.
    • Although they’re extremely cute, sheep DO NOT like to be milked (and they produce a comparatively small amount of milk anyhow, about half a gallon). 
    • Highly nutritious, sheep’s milk provides more vitamin A, B, E and calcium than cow's milk. 
    • As sheep milk cheeses age, deeply sweet, English toffee flavors emerge (like in Cheeseland’s Ewephoria, which we call “Cheese Candy!”).
  • Water Buffalo
      • Many theories regarding how water buffalo got to Europe abound – regardless, water buffalo have been used in Italian cheese production since at least the 7th century AD. (DNA of European water buffalo has not been studied in detail.)
      • Water buffalo milk is the second-highest milk consumed in the world (behind goat milk) and, second to sheep’s milk cheese, it is the highest in fat content.
      • Despite their massive size, water buffalo only produce about 4 to 6 gallons of milk per day.
      • The tightest milk-to-cheese ratio of the milk types: 1 gallon of milk = 2.25 pounds of cheese.
      • In appearance, water buffalo milk has a white-to-buttery hue and a silky smoothness.
      • Water buffalo milk gives aromas of grass, flowers & herbs, and tastes sweet & tangy with hints of gamey, “wet hay” impressions.

    While most of Antonelli’s selection of water buffalo milk cheeses is imported from Italy, there are a handful of rising American producers working to make water buffalo milk cheeses stateside!

    Forbidden Fruit: Other Milk Types

    At Sweden's The Elk House, moose-milk cheese (Swedes refer to moose as “elk”) can set a buyer back as much as $500 a pound – easily one of the globe’s most expensive cheese products. Their relatively portable feta, preserved in jars of oil, reportedly reveals mild tartness within a smooth texture, but – if you want to try for yourself – be advised that it is illegal in the United States, and could earn you a smuggling charge at the US customs depot! So what happens in Sweden, stays in Sweden.

    Just to get your imagination churning, other types of milk used to make cheese can include yak, horse, camel and donkey. Our advice? If you come across a cheese during your travels made with an animal’s milk you’ve never been exposed to – when in Rome, eat the cheese! And let us know how it went down!

    Mixed-Milk Cheeses 

    One of our favorite top-secret cards to play is that of the mixed-milk cheese. While we haven’t had the chance to get ahold of any just yet, the whimsical cheesemakers at Holland’s Cheeseland have come up with Fourmage: a four-milk gouda! Meanwhile, the Antonelli’s Cheese Shop case is regularly stocked with several mixed-milk cheeses, and we truly adore the versatility of flavors they provide. 

    Carr Valley’s Menage is an excellent melter, with the tang of goat milk, the rich depths of sheep milk, and the buttery baseline of cow milk, all coming together and bringing their best attributes to the wheel. Campo de Montalban and Tronchón are both triple-milk cheeses from Spain that more than hold their own against the very best of the classic Manchego & Caerphilly styles.

    Also, the Antonelli’s case is ripe with double-milk blended cheeses. Carr Valley’s Mobay engages in a splendid interplay, suspending a layer of sheep milk over one of goat milk, a ribbon of vegetable ash separating the two. Nettle Meadow’s Kunik beautifully blends cow & goat milks – but the addition of pure cow cream takes it to triple-creme higher heights


    Be sure to stop in often, and as always, ask your friendly Antonelli’s cheesemonger: “What’s tasting good today?” 

    Got a tight game-plan already? Skip the queue and pick-up & go, with our A La Carte ordering menu. Not in Central Texas? Treat yourself to our Antonelli’s Cheese Club, delivered monthly right to your door!
    Bon appetit!

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