What this is: This article will help to demystify the differences between raw milk cheese and cheeses made with pasteurized milk.
Who it’s for: Cheese lovers who are considering trying raw milk cheese, just want to learn more about it.
One of the most important decisions a cheese maker has to make is whether to use raw milk or pasteurized milk for their cheese. During the pasteurization process, the milk is heated to a temperature high enough to kill off any potentially harmful bacteria that could be present. While this does eliminate potentially harmful bacteria, it also eliminates the good bacteria and enzymes that add depth and nuance to the cheese, thus stripping the milk from its unique bacterial makeup.
The US government has strictly regulated the sale of raw milk since the late 1800s after a tragic milk scandal took place in New York City, during which contaminated and low quality cow’s milk was being altered and sold off to consumers as fresh milk. But, now over 100 years later and despite the enormous leaps forward in food safety, transparency, and hygienic practices, the raw milk regulations have hardly budged. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t people who are advocating for making raw milk accessible, available and legal, especially for cheesemakers.
Most milk in the USA is ultra-pasteurized milk, meaning it reaches a temperature of 280F for roughly 2 seconds before being rapidly cooled. This is the product you see in our grocery stores, regardless of whether it is conventional or organic. And this pasteurized milk is what is used to make the majority of all cheeses we consume. In fact, many people have never had a cheese that was made with raw milk because most of the cheese on the shelves is pasteurized.
The FDA does not allow the import, production, or sale of raw milk cheeses that are aged less than 60 days, with the idea that the aging process will eliminate any residual bacteria. Unfortunately, the 60 day time frame that has been put in place is an arbitrary number and the regulation itself results in many of the world’s most delicious cheeses being illegal in the states. For example, traditional French Brie is made with raw milk and aged for only two weeks, which means we can’t get it here in the States. So, we hate to break it to you, but if you have never traveled to France, then you have never had a true Brie before ( so that bright white soft wedge of cheese at your friend’s cheese plate is not Brie, though we do call those cheeses Brie-style). We are only allowed to sell and consume their pasteurized counterparts here, which results in a comparatively mediocre and bland tasting cheese compared to the real deal.
Over the last 100 years, American artisanal cheesemakers have worked to make raw milk cheeses available to the average consumer. The industry itself has boomed with over 2,000 cheese producers throughout the country. Many cheese makers and farmers have taken traditional cheese making recipes from Europe and have translated them into their own unique styles and flavor profiles utilizing high quality, grass fed raw milk and allowing the cheese to be a true expression of the terroir (where the cow’s graze). But, this deep-rooted fear of raw milk has yet to dissipate in the US. Unfortunately, the strict FDA regulations have been found to not have much basis in science and are mostly perpetuated by fear and lack of knowledge on behalf of the government and the consumer. These antiquated rules have the potential to harm the progress and success of the American artisanal cheese industry. Many creameries throughout the country have not only one or two raw milk cheeses in their collections, but some cheesemakers ONLY produce and sell raw milk cheeses. Speaking from experience, we can see these cheeses are notably different from their pasteurized counterparts, resulting in an unmatched texture, creaminess, and depth of flavor. If you have not yet given a raw milk cheese a try, this is a sign from cheese professionals: it’s time. Don’t forget to pick up a bottle of your favorite wine to wash it down.
Some examples of raw milk cheesemakers in the US: Twig Farm, Meadowcreek Farm, Consider Bardwell Farm, Springbrook Farm, Vermont Shepherd.
The difference between raw milk and pasteurized milk is simply the heated treatment of the pasteurized milk which results in a “safer” product but also reduces the depth and complexity of the cheese.
Check out your local cheese shop and ask your monger to point you in the direction of the tastiest raw milk cheese they have in stock. This could be a Swiss Gruyère, a creamy blue, or even an aged cheddar!
Click the icons to download a pdf of this lesson and our two handy guides: How Cheese is Made and Cheese and Pairing Types.