Mighty milk

What makes good milk good?

A few months ago, a friend recommended I try one of his favorite beverages: a locally made version of a popular drink, much more flavorful than the national brands.

Given that this happened in Seattle, the weird part is that he wasn’t talking about beer or coffee. He was talking about milk, and the brand he liked — Fresh Breeze Organic, of Lynden, Washington — has become a mainstay in my fridge. Right next to it, at the moment, is a bottle of cream-line milk from Golden Glen Creamery. Both products appeared on the Seattle market in the last three years.

Milk, of all things, has become exciting.

In a bottle of cream-line (non-homogenized) milk, the cream naturally separates from the milk and floats to the top of the bottle. You can scoop it off with a spoon.

But if you’re not a young child, I’ll bet you haven’t had a glass of milk lately, except perhaps as an icy companion to Oreos or chocolate-chip cookies. If you can find good milk in your area, it may be time to reconsider what you drink for a tall cool one. Good milk can even elevate cold cereal; I had a truly invigorating bowl of Corn Chex last week.

What makes these local milks so good? What, beyond platitudes about “happy cows,” are these milk producers doing differently?

A brief disclaimer first: I’m not talking about nutrition here, only flavor. You might think milk is just milk, but in terms of science, opinion, and argument, milk is anything but bland. Feel free to research the health aspects of milk on your own time; I assure you it will be about as much fun as stepping into the middle of a gunfight.

So, confining myself to taste alone, there are five factors distinguishing good milk from mediocre. The bad news is that most milk gets them all wrong. The good news is that good milk is getting easier to find, even outside the Northeast, the only part of the country that never quite lost its dairying traditions. Many of the dairies producing good milk began doing so in the last few years.

1. Cattle breed

The mainstay of the dairy industry is the Holstein-Friesian, a black-and-white-spotted mooing milk machine. The average Holstein produces more than 2,000 gallons of milk per year, or five-plus gallons a day. Traditional dairy breeds like the Jersey produce richer, better-tasting milk — and less of it. That said, Fresh Breeze has mostly Holstein cows and does amazing things with them. Dairies that milk heirloom dairy cows will trumpet the fact on their label.

2. Feed

Cows that eat grass produce more flavorful milk. “When you feed a lot of grain, the cows give a lot more milk, but it’s thinner,” says Clarissa Langley, the owner of Fresh Breeze. “We feed very little grain.” Which explains why Fresh Breeze’s milk has a pronounced grassy flavor balanced by the smooth richness of milk fat.

Pasture-feeding is best, of course, but it’s not possible to pasture year-round in the Pacific Northwest. In the winter, Fresh Breeze’s cows feed largely on hay and silage from the farm. (I had no idea what silage was until I looked it up. It’s fermented grass or grains. To a cow, I imagine this is the equivalent of cheese.) The only way to know what the cows eat is to ask the farmer or taste the milk; it won’t say on the label.

3. Pasteurization

This is a big one, and the debate over raw versus pasteurized milk is highly misleading, because it glosses over the fact that there are several types of pasteurization that lead to vastly different results. Yes, the most traditional form of pasteurization is none at all. But raw milk doesn’t guarantee great flavor.

“Some of the best milk I’ve tasted has been raw, and so has some of the worst,” writes Anne Mendelson in her fantastic book Milk. This has been my experience as well. The best milk I have ever tasted is pasteurized — but it’s not pasteurized in the same way as supermarket milk.

The original form of pasteurization, still used by Fresh Breeze and Golden Glen, is called batch or vat pasteurization. The milk is pumped into a vat, brought to 145 degrees, and held at that temperature for 30 minutes.

Two different whole milks produced by Organic Valley. The milk on the left is homogenized and ultra-pasteurized (UHT). The milk on the right is non-homogenized and pasteurized.

Most non-organic supermarket milk is pasteurized using the HTST (high temperature, short time) method. The milk passes in pipes between heated plates and is held at 161 degrees for 15 to 20 seconds; the result is the bland milk most of us are used to. HTST milk has a longer shelf life than vat-pasteurized milk, and the process is faster and cheaper to do on a large scale.

Shelf-stable milk, big-name organic milk, and milk in small cartons is generally treated via the UHT (ultra-high temperature) method, also known as ultra-pasteurized. The milk is brought under pressure to 250 degrees for under a second; the resulting stuff lasts forever and tastes, well, cooked. I kind of like this flavor, I admit, but it’s more akin to condensed milk than fresh.

You can experiment with the flavor effects of pasteurization yourself if you have access to grassy-tasting raw milk. Bring it to a boil, tasting along the way, and you’ll notice the grassy flavors becoming more muted.

Milk labels have to specify whether the milk is raw, pasteurized, or ultra-pasteurized, but they don’t have to distinguish between batch and HTST pasteurization. This is a shame. Fresh Breeze milk proclaims “vat pasteurized” on the label; Golden Glen doesn’t, even though it is.

4. Homogenization

Left to its own devices, fresh milk will separate. Homogenization breaks up the fat globules into smaller bits that won’t readily recombine. It also has a huge effect on the flavor of milk.

Mendelson loathes homogenization. “You have just discovered one of the true idiocies of the American milk industry,” she writes. “Illogical as it may seem, milk that retains its three basic phases in unmonkeyed-with form is — when you can find it — usually at least three times as expensive as milk that has been put through a complicated, energy-intensive alteration of the original structure.”

“We just feel it’s a process that’s not necessarily needed,” says Golden Glen Creamery president Brandy Jensen. “I always use the example that fruit bruises the more that you handle it, and we tend to think that milk does also.”

Having tasted homogenized and non-homogenized milk side by side, I am less convinced. Both seem pretty good to me, but I haven’t tasted enough unhomogenized milk to make an informed judgment. If you like low-fat milk, however, there is a key advantage to unhomogenized milk, which I’ll explain in a moment.

5. Fat content

Milk fat is one of the best-tasting of all fats (it turns into butter, after all), and milk, to me, seems impoverished without its fair share. I find low-fat milk a pointless and unsavory product, but I should probably direct my ire at most whole milk as well.

Why? Because all the milk at the supermarket, even the so-called whole milk, is (to use Mendelson’s term) monkeyed with. The fat is centrifuged out and then recombined with the skim milk to produce 1 percent, 2 percent, and 3.25 percent “whole” milk. All of these are, in fact, reduced-fat milks, because the average fat content of raw cow’s milk is about 4 percent, and that’s from those grain-fed Holsteins.

That said, the effects of good breeding, good feeding, and gentle pasteurization are hard to subdue. Fresh Breeze’s 1 percent milk is still pretty good. And I removed the cream from Golden Glen’s whole milk and drank some of the remaining skim milk, which was far better than any commercial skim milk.

Mendelson predicted this: “In hand-skimmed milk the residual trace of cream creates an effect you wouldn’t guess from its minuscule volume.”

To sum up, then, here’s what you want to buy: Raw or batch-pasteurized, non-homogenized whole milk from grass-fed Jersey, Guernsey, or Shorthorn cows.

As I mentioned, though, I’ve tasted bad milk that fit all five criteria and great milk that broke most of these rules. (And whether that milk is certified organic or not probably won’t have much effect on flavor.) The ultimate arbiter is your tongue.

If you don’t have good milk available near you, I think it’s only a matter of time. Fresh Breeze used to sell its milk to Darigold, where it would be subjected to HTST pasteurization and other indignities. Two years ago, however, Fresh Breeze converted to organic, installed pasteurization vats, and put its own label on its milk. It’s still selling well, despite the recession and despite selling for about twice the price of supermarket milk, although it’s no more expensive than national-brand organic milk.

Customer demand created the phenomenon of supermarket organic milk in a very short time. The same could happen for cream-line (i.e., non-homogenized) and vat-pasteurized milk. So ask for it at your local natural-foods groceries and farmers’ markets; if they don’t carry the stuff now, you might spur them to track it down.

You might even try calling your local state department of agriculture. Claudia Cole at the Washington state ag department, for example, was able to rattle off five Washington dairies I’d never heard of that do vat pasteurizing, such as Twin Brook Creamery and Breckenridge Farm.

Finally, I am compelled to report the truth of what happens to vat-pasteurized milk five to seven days after you open it: Putrefying bacteria convert it into the most foul-smelling swill that has ever defiled your refrigerator. So drink it fast.

I hasten to add, however, that the great flavor makes it worth the risk. And if you have kids, they will find the potential for scary smells tantalizing.

Matthew Amster-Burton writes about cooking and culture from his home in Seattle. He is the author of the book Hungry Monkey and keeps a blog titled Roots and Grubs.


Originally published at www.culinate.com.

    Matthew Amster-Burton

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    Yeah, I'd eat that.

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