Mighty milk

What makes good milk good?

February 19, 2009

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.

cream in spoon
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.

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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.

milk cartons
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.

Related post: Butter love

There are 24 comments on this item
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1. by giovannaz on Feb 19, 2009 at 1:43 PM PST

Great info--we’ve been buying non-homogenized milk from Noris for a few years. Now when we have to buy regular milk, it tends to sit ignored in the fridge. It has no flavor!

I’m looking forward to coffeehouses in the NW starting to use delicious milk--the difference it makes in a caffelatte is quite noticeable.

2. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Feb 19, 2009 at 2:07 PM PST

I was wondering about that, giovannaz, but I couldn’t find any local espresso place using my favorite milk, and I don’t have my own espresso machine. I’m betting there is a local place using Fresh Breeze or Golden Glen or similar, so if anyone knows of one, in any locale, by all means post it.

3. by giovannaz on Feb 19, 2009 at 2:31 PM PST

I’m afraid that the quick-turn in milk quality--that you mention in the end of your article and my kids mention towards the end of the week--could be problematic for cafes. But I would happily pay a bit extra, just as we do for other better products.

4. by Brandy on Feb 19, 2009 at 3:32 PM PST

Actually, there are three coffeehouses that use Golden Glen milk: Vanilla Swan in Allen; Polly’s Coffee in Allen; and Mukilteo Coffee Roasters in Langley.

5. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Feb 19, 2009 at 9:05 PM PST

Excellent, Brandy, sorry I didn’t ask before posting. Anyone who lives in the area, patronize and enjoy!

6. by giovannaz on Feb 20, 2009 at 7:58 AM PST

Perfect! We’re driving up to Vancouver in a couple weeks--we’ll stop by!

7. by James Berry on Feb 20, 2009 at 9:00 AM PST

@mamster: great article. I can tell you got excited by this one. You totally cracked me up with your “To a cow, I imagine this is the equivalent of cheese” wisecrack!

8. by Rebecca T. of HonestMeat on Feb 21, 2009 at 9:53 PM PST

Just giving a shout out for my favorite tasting milk- Claravale Farm in Panoche, CA has amazing raw milk from their Jersey herd. My husband and I fight over who gets the cream on top. I had not drank a glass of milk in over 10 years until I started getting Claravale milk. Now I like to chug the raw sweetness....

9. by Fasenfest on Feb 22, 2009 at 7:27 AM PST

Great article Matt.

One a week my family gets 1 1/2 gallons of raw, Jersey cow milk each week from a local dairy. Cream gets skimmed for, well, cream (or butter) from one of the 1/2 gallons so the husband his low-fat preference (silly boy). Another 1/2 gallon (or more) gets “homogenized” (shaken) for the kids who love the whole fat full flavor with their granola (it does not separate again) and at least one quart (sometimes two) turns into delicious yogurt. If, there is any milk left over towards the end of the week when the new delivery arrives, I turn it into ricotta or yogurt cheese (if I have any leftover yogurt). The milk never goes “putrid” and is never is wasted. Another plus is that it comes in glass bottles that I can turn in. Buying and using milk this way is both a taste and stewardship sensation.

As an aside, I used to use Norris milk in my coffee house. When I tried to get other coffee shops to get on board (Stumptown for one) they said it wouldn’t foam for them. I never had that problem.

10. by Fasenfest on Feb 22, 2009 at 7:29 AM PST

God darn. Forgive the typos. I should really edit better.


11. by giovannaz on Feb 22, 2009 at 8:56 AM PST

So if milk isn’t pasteurized at all, does it only sour? The ‘going bad’ only happens to pasteurized?

The guy who foams milk at my house never has trouble foaming the whole Noris milk; occasionally the 2% (which we’re moving away from) doesn’t quite foam. He said Straus seems always to foam--I wonder if it’s pasteurized differently? Or more homogenized?

Can milk be a little homogenized, or is that like being a little pregnant?

12. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Feb 22, 2009 at 12:10 PM PST

I didn’t get into the issue of souring, but both raw and vat-pasteurized milk can be soured, and both go bad in the refrigerator. Apparently, fridge temperatures inhibit the activity of good souring bacteria but not putrefying bacteria.

Incidentally, what’s true of milk is true of cheese: you’ve certainly heard good and accurate things about raw-milk cheeses, but cheeses made from vat-pasteurized milk can be just as good. There are all sorts of great things you can do with “excess” good milk that I didn’t have space to get into; maybe another time.

Straus is HTST pasteurized, but I don’t know anything else about it.

13. by Chris Musser on Feb 24, 2009 at 5:55 AM PST

@giovannaz Raw milk simply sours. It gets a kind of cheesy aroma and left long enough in the fridge, it begins to separate. I save whatever raw milk we don’t drink or use to make cheese and yogurt and have a few experiments going in my fridge. A quart I left for a few weeks separated completely--about 1/4 curd and the rest whey. During a cheese making class at my home, we tasted it, and agreed it tasted like blue cheese that needed some salt. Most of our soured raw milk goes into pancakes and other baked goods. It’s a perfect replacement for buttermilk in recipes.

Raw milk still has the good little beasties in it that naturally cause it to turn into cheese. Those probiotics keep the bad stuff at bay by turning lactose into lactic acid. That acidic environment is inhospitable to putrefying bacteria. Pasteurization destroys the good bacteria, giving the bad ‘uns the opportunity to proliferate and cause milk to turn.

As far as “a little homogenized,” I can’t say for sure, but I do think that the handling of milk causes some degree of homogenization. As Harriett mentioned, she just shakes up her raw milk once and it remains mixed--which demonstrates that it doesn’t take much to homogenized milk. When making cheese, I have noticed that vat pasteurized, but not intentionally homogenized, milk, has a much smaller curd than raw milk and I think that’s the result of “a little” homogenization that happens during processing.

14. by Sandra Keros on Feb 25, 2009 at 1:10 PM PST

Love this article! However, I still believe that if you can tolerate milk: raw, baby, raw. There is nothing better texture-wise or taste-wise than raw cream in a sauce. I love this website for info: www.realmilk.com

15. by Julia on Feb 25, 2009 at 7:49 PM PST

The Equal Exchange Coffee Shop at Ballard Market uses Fresh Breeze. Yum.

16. by Hank Sawtelle on Mar 2, 2009 at 11:39 AM PST

Great article mamster. I made panna cotta today and the non-UHT, non-homogenized cream seems to make a real (positive) difference.

17. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Mar 2, 2009 at 12:33 PM PST

Excellent. I didn’t mention it, but I think Fresh Breeze’s cream is their best product: 40% milkfat, incredible flavor. I had some whipped on a sundae yesterday.

18. by Hillary on Mar 4, 2009 at 2:19 PM PST

Great post. I’m a huge milk lover actually. I had a bad sinus infection a year ago for about a year and a half and had to stay away from milk to prevent making more mucous (sorry if that was too much info). But anyway, now that I can drink it again - I can’t get enough!

19. by Mark Scarbrough on Mar 16, 2009 at 10:27 AM PDT

OK, so I beg to disagree a little. Raw milk is utterly (udderly?) fantastic. I actually get mine in shares from the dairy a couple towns over. Yes, it does taste a little flat right now, mostly because the cow’s are eating only hay. But come summer, when the farmer tosses in the strawberry hulls from his patch, when the cows are eating the meadow flowers, when they’re chewing the new grass after a rain--it’s somewhere beyond wonderful.

20. by Matthew Amster-Burton on Mar 16, 2009 at 11:25 AM PDT

Well, Mark, like I said, raw milk can be among the best-tasting milk. But not always--and I’d like people to know that you can have fabulous-tasting milk that isn’t raw.

21. by anonymous on Aug 15, 2009 at 10:30 PM PDT

Wow - this is thorough and answers questions I hadn’t even thought of. Thank you! BTW, my personal vote is for the raw stuff!

22. by anonymous on Jan 14, 2010 at 12:41 PM PST

I love milk but can no longer tolerate it; could you do a similar column for non-dairy (e.g., soy, rice, almond) beverages?

23. by anonymous on Nov 16, 2011 at 12:08 AM PST

Hi, I went to the nearest dr health store to get the un-homod and un-pasturd milk. But I was half lucky to get the homogenized but pasturized milk of jersey cows. Is it really worth the money-2L $6:50. Should I have to just wait for the un-homo and un-pastur to arrive on the fridge. Thanks

24. by anonymous on Oct 31, 2012 at 4:47 PM PDT

I wonder, could you add a couple tablespoons of liv-culture yoghurt into vat-pasteurized milk and re-introduce the good basteria? Or is that hoping for too much.

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Unexplained Bacon

Matthew Amster-Burton sniffs out the unexplained in the kitchen, the store, and the food world at large. He blogs at Roots and Grubs, podcasts at Spilled Milk, and is the author of the book Hungry Monkey.

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