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Getting Quality Milk For Cheesemaking

Getting Quality Milk For Cheesemaking

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It’s pretty simple, good quality milk makes for good cheese.  I often get asked to solve cheese-making problems that are the result of poor milk handling practices. I’m sorry, there is nothing you can do. You must have good, properly handled milk if you want to have consistent results with your cheese making. While it is possible to make cheese from raw milk I prefer to use heat-treated or pasteurized milk because it helps to hold the bacteria at bay and I have better results when making cheese.  This is especially important when it comes to having your own dairy animals.

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Whether you are using store bought milk, have your own dairy animals or you find a local farmer you can purchase milk from, you need to make sure that you get the best quality of milk.  Bad milk will never make good cheese.

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It is important to understand that with milk used for cheesemaking there is a fine balance between having enough acidity to help set and age the cheese and having too much which will cause the milk to curdle.  Acidity is also a factor in developing the flavor and preserving your cheese. There are multiple things that affect acidity of the milk.

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How old is the milk? Milk naturally becomes more acidic as it ages. How the milk was handled after leaving the animal and how quickly it was cooled? Even what time of year the dairy animal was milked can affect the acidic level of the milk. Late lactation often increases the acidic level of the milk.

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Milk is the perfect breeding ground for bacteria. When you introduce cheese cultures to your milk you are actually adding positive, beneficial bacteria. When a recipe calls for milk to be held at a certain temperature, it is because that is the best temperature for that specific cheese culture bacteria to flourish. Proper handling of the milk keeps the negative bacteria levels low so that the good bacteria can flourish. I actually think about the good and bad bacteria as a war. You want to get enough of the good bacteria growing before the bad has a chance to get a foothold. Poorly handled milk ensures that you will lose this war and your cheese will be the victim.

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Are your ready to make cheese but need milk? There are basically 3 ways to get it: buy it from a store, get your own dairy animal, buy it from a local dairy.

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Store Bought Milk:

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This is safe as it is already pasteurized.  Just be sure to buy the freshest you can get.  Whole milk works best for making cheese with store bought milk.  Sometimes you can have a problem with a softer set using store bought milk.  The addition of calcium chloride will help you get a firmer set.  Do not use calcium chloride when making mozzarella, as it will interfere with the stretch.

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Your own Dairy Animals: 

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Be it cow, goat, sheep, buffalo, whatever; it is fantastic if you have your own milk supply! Just be sure to use good handling and cooling methods to insure you keep bacteria levels low.  It is very important that you don’t just strain you milk and put it in the fridge. That doesn’t get it cold nearly quickly enough. I did a test a few years back and I found that milk put into 1-quart jars and placed in the refrigerator took 8 hours to reach 40 degrees.  That is way too long and bacteria are growing by the billions. Dairy standards say that milk should be cooled to 40 degrees or less in 30 minutes.  It is critical for successful cheese making that you do a good job of getting that milk cooled quickly.

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I also personally prefer to heat treat all milk coming into the house. I know that a lot of people prefer to use raw milk but I consider it just too risky. If using raw milk to make cheese you need to cool it very quickly in an ice water bath while stirring. I would not keep it very long before making cheese or else make cheese as soon as the fresh milk comes into the house. Once you inoculate it with a culture you would get the good bacteria growing right away. You cannot hold milk in the fridge for a while and pasteurize later. By then it is already growing whatever bacteria were present.  If you opt to pasteurize you must do while the milk fresh from the animal.

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Purchasing milk from a Farmer:

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If you are planning on purchasing milk be it cow or goat from a local farmer there are some things you need to ask before you make the purchase.   Take a look around the dairy, is it clean? You’ve got to be able to trust that this dairy is maintaining high standards before you bring their milk into your house. The number one question I would ask is what method they use to cool the milk.  If they are not following a quick cooling method such as the ice water bath method or heat-treating their milk then you need to walk away.

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I had a call from a fellow who had gone the route of buying milk from a local source.  It happened to be goat milk.  He had purchased 10 gallons of goat milk and brought it all home and set out to make cheese.  It all curdled the minute he went to heat it up.  I got a frantic call asking what he could do now.  I had to tell him that he had to throw it all away.  It was not properly cooled.  It had already been growing a culture of its own.  Was way too acidic already and curdled instantly when heated. There is nothing you can do to save cheese that has gone wrong because of poor milk.  When it comes to purchasing milk from a local source, it is buyer beware.  I would also recommend tasting a sample of the milk you are purchasing.  It should be sweet and delicious right from the animal.  If it has any off flavor at all it will only be magnified when you make cheese.

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Hoegger Farmyard Contributer

Mary Jane Toth

Author of A Cheesemaker’s Journey and Goats Produce Too

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  1. by kayethomson
    Comment made on: July 24 2012

    I have goats milk in the freezer. It was cooled immediately in an ice bath and then the freezer. Will it still make good cheese?



    • by MaryJaneToth
      Comment made on: August 2 2012

      It should be ok for making cheese. Just be sure to thaw in the refrigerator. I don’t usually make cheese from frozen milk myself simply because I stopped freezing milk. It takes up too much space. I make all my excess milk into cheese right away or can the milk for use when the does are dry.


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