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A latte crudo, raw milk cheese

By March 2, 2022One Comment

Does raw milk make a difference in cheese making? Using unpasteurized milk to make cheese is a hotly contested debate in the world of cheese. Some argue that raw milk gives cheese a better flavor. Others claim that cheese made from pasteurized milk can be just as delicious and satisfying. Before taking sides, it’s important to ask a few, very important questions.

raw milk cheese from Wales

What is raw milk cheese?

Raw milk cheese is made with unpasteurized milk. Raw-milk cheeses may be firm, oozy, creamy, or crumbly and can come in any shape, from wheel to block. For example, Parmigiano Reggiano can’t be called Parmigiano Reggiano unless it’s made from raw milk. Same goes for many other European cheeses, like those big, beautiful French triple-crème cheeses. Think Brie de Meaux (required by France’s Appellation d’Origine contrôlée AOC to use raw milk in their production) or high altitude Alpine hunks like Fontina, blue heaven Strachitunt and Castelmagno d’Alpeggio, to mention a few.

raw milk cheeses are made with unpasteurized milk

What does pasteurization mean?

Pasteurization is a process where packaged and non-packaged foods (such as milk and beer) are treated with mild heat to eliminate pathogens. The process is named after French microbiologist Louis Pasteur, whose research in the 1860s demonstrated that applying heat could deactivate unwanted microorganisms in wine.

louis pasteur

In cheese making, pasteurization occurs when the milk is heated to 161° F for fifteen seconds, or to 145° F for thirty minutes or more. Cheese makers then quickly cool down the milk, so that all germs die. Pasteurization kills pathogens such as Listeria and E. coli (plus others like Staphylococcus aureus and Salmonella) which can be present in raw milk. 

What is thermization?

An alternative to pasteurization is thermization. The fresh milk is heated right after milking to 68° F for a shorter period of time than pasteurized milk. It’s therefore a more delicate heat treatment. This preserves a greater part of bacterial flora, but not all potentially pathogenic germs are eliminated.

European raw milk cheeses

Is raw milk cheese allowed in the USA?

Cheese made with raw milk can’t be sold in the USA unless it has been aged for at least 60 days. The Food and Drug Administration regulates this since 1949, with the intention of protecting consumers from potentially harmful bacteria in unpasteurized milk. After 60 days, the acids and salts in raw milk cheese are believed to naturally prevent harmful types of bacteria from growing.

In addition to destroying potentially dangerous microorganisms, some cheese lovers argue that pasteurizing milk also destroys the good bacteria, and reduces the complexity, range, and strength of flavors that lead to great cheese. They also maintain that cheese has been safely made with raw milk for millennia… 

Their point is that there is no reason to be fearful of raw milk and no reason to wait 60 days to eat cheese made from it. These cheese aficionados often use European cheese as evidence, since most European dairy products are traditionally made with raw milk. Consider Robiola and Reblochon as proof that raw milk really does make superior cheese. Others, on the other hand, point to high quality artisanal cheeses as proof that pasteurized milk cheese like Italian Gorgonzola, French Comté and German Butterkäse are no less flavorful. 

raw milk triple crème cheese

Does raw milk cheese taste better?

Yes. And No. Although cheese makers and cheese addicts will passionately argue both sides of this debate, which tastes better is strictly a matter of personal taste. There are many beautiful, high-quality, artisan cheeses made from pasteurized milk. There are also many amazing kinds of cheese made from raw milk. Personally, I feel it’s important that cheese makers are given a choice. That they are allowed to use the type of milk they feel is best for the type of cheese they are making. It’s equally important knowing that there are other factors besides whether the milk was pasteurized or not actually affecting the quality of cheese. 

More important questions:

artisanal raw milk cheese

Is the cheese made in a factory or is it artisanal, made by actual human hands?

Usually, the smaller the farmhouse operation, the bigger the care and attention to sanitary measures will be.

Is the milk (raw or pasteurized) gathered and filtered in a clean, sanitary place?

The journey that the milk travels from the udder to the dairy facility exposes the milk to potential cross-contamination. If the milk is properly stored, used within a few hours of milking and properly filtered in a clean environment, there is less risk for pathogen growth.

making parmigiano reggiano

Is the cheese made in a clean, hygienic space? 

In any cheese processing facility, there are multiple food contact surfaces. A food contact surface is any surface that may enter into direct contact with the food. Examples are tables, shelves, scales, cutting boards, and utensils such as shovels, knives, curd cutters, etc. The steps needed to clean and sanitize a food contact surface properly are:

  1. Pre-rinse with hot water
  2. Wash with soap/detergent and clean sponges/microfiber cloths
  3. Rinse with warm water
  4. Sanitize with disinfectant
  5. Air dry
raw milk cheese aging in the cellar

How and where does the cheese age? 

Temperature, ambient cleanliness, humidity and daily care all weigh in the condition of each wheel during the maturing process. 

Are the animals healthy? 

Milk must always come from farms giving highest priority to hygiene standards and animal well-being, not just for unpasteurized consumption. It’s in the best interest of anyone working with raw milk for the production of cheese to keep healthy animals, regularly under veterinary observation. Healthy animals = healthy (raw) milk. Furthermore, just milked raw milk, as it squirts out of the cow’s udder, is completely sterile at a temperature of 98.6° F. Bacteria start proliferating as soon as the milk comes in contact with the environment and with air. 

beyond free-range

Are the animals allowed to graze freely in a pasture, eating a variety of plants? 

Animals that graze on fresh, untouched grass and flowers are less likely to develop pathological conditions than livestock that feed on silage and GMO fodder alone.

In conclusion

The best way to answer if raw milk cheese is better than pasteurized is… not having to answer. There’s no need to decide: But do sample them side by side. Visit your cheesemonger to taste and appreciate the best local pasteurized cheese products. Then, if you travel to Italy, Britain or France, you can go crazy sampling all the raw milk cheese. 

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