Every Milk Is a Different Category
Now that you are becoming acquainted with the world of cheese, you can start to distinguish between the milks used to make different cheeses. Though not an official cheese classification, milk type certainly is important in determining flavor.
By far, cow's-milk cheese is the most common. Cow's milk is readily available for large commodity cheeses produced on a big scale, and for smaller, and more specialized cheese makers as well. When you smell cow's-milk cheese, it will be milky and somewhat sweet. This is the nature of cow's milk, and since most of us are accustomed to drinking milk from cows, it will smell the most familiar of the different kinds of cheeses. When you taste cow's-milk cheese it will also taste familiar, but stop for a moment and let a piece of cheese rest on your palate. Note the sweetness, and perhaps the hint of fruitiness. This is the classic cow's-milk taste.
Sheep's-milk cheese is second to cow's-milk cheese in popularity and availability. It's made almost anywhere sheep are raised, and often is associated with mountain or monastery cheese. Sheep's-milk cheeses are often associated with buttery, nutty flavors. When made well, sheep's-milk cheese is one of the most complex in flavor profiles, as it can start out almost as sweet as cow's milk and end with nutty tones. Bries, Goudas, fetas, and mountain cheeses commonly are made with sheep's milk.
Goat's-milk cheeses have grown in popularity by leaps and bounds over the past twenty years. Once rarely found outside of Europe, they are now being made by large, commercial dairies as well as small artisan cheese makers. Laura Chenel, who (as mentioned previously) started making fresh goat's-milk cheese (fresh chèvre) in California in the late 1970s, is credited with popularizing fresh chèvre, and by example, encouraging many other American cheese makers to begin experimenting with goat's-milk cheese.
Many people in the cheese world refer to all goat's-milk cheeses by the French word for goat,
Goat's milk is used to make all kinds of cheeses: fresh, natural rind, washed rind, semisoft, semihard, Goudas, and blues. What sets goat's-milk cheese apart from the others in taste is a lemony brightness of flavor, followed by a tang.
Other Animals and Blended Milk
Throughout the world, wherever animals are milked, cheeses have been made from their milk. Water-buffalo cheese comes in fourth to cows, sheep, and goats in popularity of cheeses, and cheeses have also been made from camel's milk and from the milk of other mammals.
Lots of different cheese is made from the blended milk of different animals. Cow and water buffalo milk goes into mozzarella di bufala; cow, goat, and sheep milk go into the Spanish Iberico; and Italian Robiola-style cheese often combines milk from cows, goats, and sheep, or just two of the animals. Also, Greek cheeses such as feta and Manouri are blends of sheep and goat milk.
Dry, Nonfat, and Part-Skim Milk
The use of dry and nonfat milks for cheese making is mostly the province of commodity cheese makers who produce nonfat and lowfat cheeses. The absence of fat is offset by emulsifiers that act to bind the curd and give it the body of a higher-fat cheese. In addition, mechanized cheese-making processes help produce the smooth texture of a higher-fat cheese.
Powdered milk is often used to make cheese powder. Cheese powder, in turn, is used in lots of prepared foods like macaroni and cheese, cheese-flavored chips, sauces, and dressings. Sometimes natural food coloring, like the extract of annatto seed provides a bright orange color, and other times the color comes from carotene or artificial food dyes.
Part-skim milk is commonly used in many cheeses that are made with both morning and evening milk. For example, a wheel of Parmigiano-Reggiano is about 80 pounds, and with small herds, it requires two milkings to fill a vat with enough milk for a wheel of cheese. Before the evening milk is added to the vat, the cream is skimmed from the morning milk, thereby rendering it a part-skim milk. Some Gruyeres and Swiss cheeses are made in a similar fashion.