arethusa-wheels-2By Paul Partica, The Cheese Shop Of Centerbrook

I think there may be very few people who dislike cheese. I even know people who say they do not like it but paradoxically eat pizza. Where would we be without it? No fondue?

Milk is such an important staple in our everyday diet. In addition to drinking it, we cook and consume it in so many forms: butter, cream, ice cream and cheese, just to name a few. So I thought it time to discuss the origins of cheese – milk, and the cows that produce this white gold.

Butterfat Content

arethusa-display-2Milk is sold with different amounts of butterfat content: whole milk, 2%, 1% and non-fat. However, the percentage of butterfat content in the milk that cows produce can differ between breeds. This amount will vary from 3.5% to as high as 5% or more. The amount of fat in milk will also depend on the time of year the milk is produced. Cows that graze on fresh spring and summer grass may yield more butterfat and slightly sweeter milk than cows eating drier matter during fall and winter. In addition, cows in both early and late lactation produce more butter fat than then cows in mid lactation.

Milk types with lower butterfat content simply have varying amounts of butterfat removed. This is accomplished by letting milk sit, then skimming off the cream which rises to the top. Whole milk is basically milk straight from a cow where nothing has been done to alter its butterfat content. Often, butterfat is removed expressly for cheese-making purposes since the steady percentage of fat in the milk results in a consistent-tasting cheese.

As a point of interest, the other day I was reading the signage on a 2% milk carton which stated that it contained 38% less fat than whole milk. This wording can create the illusion of a big difference in fat content. Although the numbers are technically correct, this is actually taking a product – milk straight from a cow – that has less than 4% fat to begin with, down to 2% percent, a difference of about 1.5% of the total volume of milk.

(By the way, there is a similar issue with decaffeinated coffees that state 99% of the caffeine has been removed. Once again, this is technically correct. However, considering that Arabica coffee only contains 1% caffeine to begin with, they are simply removing 99% of the inappreciable 1% it started with. Food for thought, I say.)

There is much talk today about how the theory of avoiding as much fat as possible may not be the right thing to do. I recently read a review by Dr. Mario Kratz in the European Journal of Nutrition. The article states that “people who eat full-fat dairy are no more likely to develop cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes than people who stick to low-fat dairy.” There are many others who feel that a high-fat diet is less likely to contribute to obesity than a low-fat diet. Personally, I feel moderation is the key.

The Cast Members

The Purebred Dairy Cattle Association lists the seven major cow breeds in the United States, and an article by Michael Looper, Professor and Department head at the University of Arkansas, lists the butterfat content of each breed, shown in parenthesis by the following names:

Milking Shorthorn (3.59%)

This breed was originally used as both a beef and dairy animal. To my eye, this breed looks like beef cattle. Milking Shorthorns come in several colors, with different shades of red, red and white, and sometimes solid white. They weigh in around 1,200 to 1,300 pounds and produce around 17,000 pounds of milk per year.

Holstein (Butterfat 3.64%)

This largest breed of cow, weighing in at 1,500 pounds on average, is recognized by its striking black and white color. Holsteins also produce the largest quantity of milk of all breeds, about 25,000 pounds per year, but they are also known for producing milk with lower butterfat content. The Holstein breed accounts for almost 90% of the milk cows in The United States.

Red and White (3.64%)

This breed is a close relative to the Holsteins. The main difference is the red and white color that originally caused them to be culled from the Holstein breed. Not until the late 1960’s did Red and Whites become their own registered breed. Size and milk production is that of the Holstein breed.

Ayrshire (3.88%)

Originally from the county of Ayrshire in Scotland, this very strong breed is known for large milk production – about 17,000 pounds per year. Ayrshires are usually brown or slight cherry red and white in color. They average about 1,200 pounds in size.

Brown Swiss (3.98%)

Originated in the Swiss Alps, this is a very old breed of cows dating back a few thousand years. Brown Swiss milk has higher butterfat content than most other breeds, weighing around 1,300 to 1,500. They are usually a light brown color, with a black nose and tongue. These cows produce 20,000 pounds of milk per year and their high butterfat yield makes for very good cheese-making.

Guernsey (4.46%)

With an unusual golden milk color, it is no surprise that milk from this 1,100 pound cow is used more for cheese-making then drinking. The Guernsey breed is marked by a typically light brown coat and clear nose; they produce about 16,000 pounds of milk per year.

Jersey (4.64%)

One of the more popular breeds, after the Holsteins, Jersey milk produces the highest butterfat. Hence, these cows are known as the “cheese breed.” Jerseys originate from the British Island of Jersey and are smaller, weighing around 900 to 1000 pounds and producing 16,000 to 17,000 pounds of milk yearly.

As a matter of interest, buffalo milk is the highest butterfat-producing animal milk that is normally used for cheese. Buffalo yield can reach two and three times higher than that of cows.

I give thanks to the farmers who work 24/7 to provide us with milk.

Milk and the Cows that Produce It
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