Cheeses made from raw milk are more available now than they were in years past, which raises the question about the differences between cheese made from raw milk and cheese made from pasteurized milk. There is a lot of politics involved, and I will not get into that here. Rather, I will discuss flavor, process and the law regarding cheeses made from raw milk and cheeses made from pasteurized milk.
First, we will review pasteurization. This process was developed in the 1860s by Louis Pasteur, a French microbiologist, and became widespread by the end of the 19th century as milk production and processing shifted from small farms to a bigger, more industrial scale.
There are two common methods of pasteurization: the first is heating the milk to 144F and holding it there for 30 minutes. The other, and unfortunately more common method is to heat the milk to 160F and hold it there for 15 seconds. The latter method is faster and cheaper, but does tend to diminish the flavor of the fresh milk. The first method alters the flavor less and is thus more favorable from a flavor perspective. In the United States, each state has its own rules regarding the production and sale of raw milk and raw milk products, but imported cheeses must all conform to the same federal regulations, which is simply that they have to be aged for 60 days at a temperature of no more than 35F in order to be imported. This means that many types of cheeses, like French Brie de Meaux are not old enough to be imported into the United States. Fortunately, there are plenty of raw cheeses that are. Some of which, like Parmigiano-Regianno have always been raw. There are no pasteurized versions of this cheese, although the process for making it does include cooking the curd and adding confusion. Many cheeses from Switzerland are also always raw, but they are also often partially-skimmed, cooked-curd cheeses and the labeling can be vague. Flavor is really what we are after when it comes to cheese though. Raw milk cheeses are more flavorful, just like raw milk is more flavorful. This is because it has not been altered by heat, but also because most raw milk is of very high quality. It has to be. There is no process to salvage lesser quality product. But milk quality matters with pasteurization too. High quality milk pasteurized by the longer method will be richer and tastier than lower quality, homogenized, ultra-pasteurized milk. Raw milk also maintains its microbial content, which keeps the milk from spoiling and can help it better become cheese. Cheese is made by encouraging certain microbial activity and inhibiting others. Raw milk already has favorable microbial activity for cheese-making. That good bacteria is what can be beneficial for us too. The probiotic content of commercial yogurt products is simply a replacement of what was in the milk naturally in the first place. But flavor cannot replaced. Raw milk cheeses and very high-quality pasteurized cheeses taste full and grassy, an indication of what the animals had been eating. And this is what gets at the heart of raw milk cheese. The milk is flavorful because of the beta carotene in the plants that the cows, goats and sheep eat. Raw dairies can generally keep a very close eye on quality because they are almost always smaller and the animals almost always pastured. A raw dairy is not something that can be done successfully on a large scale because storage and handling are too difficult and pasture is relatively more scarce. This brings us to safety. It should be noted first of all that most milk-borne illnesses arising today are caused by post-production contamination like listeria, not bacteria originally present in the milk. Pasteurization cannot protect against this. Good cheeses possess a unique bacterial makeup as a result of the production process, beginning with the milk. Cheese is not an inherently dangerous product raw or pasteurized, it is just prone to occasional contamination, just like most foods. This is human error, don't blame the cheese. There is a lot of disagreement over the potential risks of eating raw milk cheese, but much of it is due to a lack of knowledge and understanding of cheese and the bacterial life that makes it possible, raw or pasteurized. The contamination that occurs in any type of dairy is usually caused by carelessness. Most of the systems we have today keep milk pretty safe, raw or otherwise. These are serious public health considerations that must be made to regulate and keep safe any type of milk and milk product and this is where politics enters the scene. The dairy industry's main lobbying group is big and powerful and they represent the interests of very large-scale production. Much of the debate ends up in this policy arena where lobbying groups vie to exert maximum influence. Fortunately, despite all of this, we are still lucky to be able to enjoy some of Europe's fine cheeses the way they have been made for centuries and get to know the complexities and potential that top-class milk can achieve.
You can find which of our cheeses are made from raw milk on our website. Look at the column on the far right of the Cheeses at a Glance table for the milk type listed for your favorite cheeses.
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