Dairy Products

Got milk? If you're from the Americas, Australia, or any country in Europe, the answer is probably yes. Milk has long been a staple in those parts of the world and the variety continues to expand, as does our love for all things rich and creamy made from it.

Plain milk is the basis for a tasty assortment of products, from butter to yogurt and cheese, created over the centuries by necessity, accident or ingenuity. Many of these products are nearly as old as milk itself, but guess who's the new kid on the block? Ice cream! Believe it or not, this dairy obsession didn't appear in the historical record until the 17th century.

Milk: From Farm to Table

Although some folks drink raw milk, most of the milk we drink these days has been homogenized and pasteurized. Want to know more about what milk goes through before it hits your table?! Keep reading.

After cows are milked, their rich, fatty milk goes through a process called homogenization, which reduces the size of the fat globules present in milk and disperses them evenly instead of having a layer of cream on top. For skim or fat-free milk, part or all of the cream layer is removed before the milk is homogenized.

Pasteurization, named after the famous French scientist, Louis Pasteur, is a process that was widely adopted early in the last century to greatly reduce the amount of potentially harmful bacteria sometimes present in milk. There are two basic methods: HTST (high temperature/short time), the most common method, heats raw milk to 161°F for at least 15 seconds. UHT (ultra-high temperature) heats raw milk to 280°F for at least 2 seconds. Pasteurization affects the flavor of milk slightly.

The purpose of pasteurization is to make milk uniformly safe for human consumption and to improve the keeping quality of milk, thereby extending its shelf life. Some vitamins and nutrients are lost when milk is pasteurized. Among these are the enzymes lipase and lactase that aid in the digestion of fats and milk sugar (lactose), and vitamins C and B6.

The Raw Facts about Raw Milk

Because of its rich flavor, high vitamin content and digestive enzymes, raw milk has a devoted following in some areas where dairy farms supply it to the surrounding community. Take note, though, that raw milk by definition is unpasteurized and can be dangerous to consume if it is contaminated with harmful bacteria, causing serious illness or even death, especially in children or individuals with compromised immune systems.

Choosing Organic Milk

Cows that produce certified organic milk are not given antibiotics or added growth hormones. In addition to having access to the outdoors, cows on certified organic farms are fed 100% organic feed, so consequently they're not exposed to persistent pesticides, herbicides or fungicides, eliminating the possibility that these chemicals may turn up as residues in the milk. (Genetically Modified Organisms, or GMOs, including the use of cloned animals, are also prohibited by the Organic Standards.)

Why We Love Butter

Wonder why we love butter so much? Because it's churned from rich, flavorful concentrated cream. In fact, by law it must have a fat content of at least 80%. Spread on toast or tossed with hot pasta, we think a little butter adds just the right touch.

All butters have the same basic make-up and list of uses, but there are so many delicious ones to choose from. Check out a few of our favorites:

European butter

This rich product has a slightly higher amount of butterfat (up to 84%) so you'll find it a bit richer than its American counterparts.

Ghee

Essentially, ghee is just clarified butter. That is, it's been heated until all of the water has evaporated, leaving a concentrated flavor and texture. Ghee is most popular in India, where the climate necessitates having butter that can be kept at room temperature for a long time.

Homemade butter

Think it's hard to make your own butter? Think again! Use a clean pint or half-pint jar with a tight-fitting lid and fill about one-third of the way with heavy cream. Shake the jar until a lump of butter has formed. (This will take about 10 minutes. The longer you shake the jar, the larger the lump will be. You can also whisk heavy cream in a bowl with the same results.) Pour off the remaining liquid. Fold in a bit of salt or a small handful of fresh herbs and you're set.

Dairy Products 101

We've already covered milk and butter. But what about all of the other good stuff that's made from milk? Believe it or not, we're just getting started:

Buttermilk

Historically, buttermilk was the liquid that remained after butter had been churned, which was then exposed to airborne bacteria and allowed to ferment, acquiring the slightly sour, acidic flavor that it is prized for. These days, the buttermilk available in supermarkets is actually a cultured product created from ordinary skim milk that's been fermented and pasteurized. Use buttermilk as a base for soups, salad dressings or marinades, mix it with sweet berries or peaches, or look for baked goods that use it as a tangy ingredient. (You can't go wrong with a classic. Use buttermilk to make Fresh Herb Buttermilk Biscuits.)

Cheese

Where do we start? There's just too much to say about our favorite dairy product here. Go to our cheese page to really stir your appetite.

Cottage cheese

Cottage cheese is actually a cheese-curd product that still contains some whey; it's usually available in either large or small curd varieties. Cottage cheese, along with its cousins farmer's cheese and pot cheese, is usually served with fresh fruit and vegetables, but it has merit as a substitute for richer, high-calorie dairy products in lasagna, dips and desserts such as cheesecake.

Cream

This term is used to describe everything from heavy cream to half and half, whipping cream and double cream. (The fat levels range from roughly 12% to 48%.)

Crème fraîche

With a fat content of about 30%, this rich specialty used in the regional cuisines of France is a delicious extravagance. It's slightly fermented with lactic bacteria which thickens it and gives it a distinctively sharp, not sour, flavor.

Clotted cream (a.k.a. Devonshire cream)

With a 60% fat content, this cream is too thick to pour, but it's not as thick as butter either. Traditionally served with scones or fruit, it has a slightly cooked taste and a longer shelf life than ordinary cream.

Mascarpone

Tiramisu wouldn't measure up without this sweet and flavorful cream cheese product of Italian origin that's made by adding citric acid to heavy cream. The final product is similar to a richer, smoother and denser clotted cream with a 75% fat content, just 5% away from butter. Delicious with fresh fruit, it can also be used as a substitute for heavy cream in savory recipes. (Want to take this one for a spin? Try making Gingered Pears with Port Glaze and Mascarpone.)

Quark

Funny name. Delicious stuff. Quark can be classified as a sort of curd cheese somewhere between yogurt and small-curd cottage cheese. It's quite low in fat, versatile in the kitchen and, like yogurt, is sometimes sold blended with fruit.

Sour cream

Did you know that sour cream is simply cream that's been soured by harmless bacterial cultures, giving it a piquant flavor that's perfect for topping potatoes or cooked in cheesecake?

Yogurt

What's not to love about this dairy favorite? Yogurt contains beneficial bacterial cultures that aid digestion of the product itself and promote healthy intestinal flora. Also look for kefir, a yogurt product that's one of the oldest cultured dairy products known. Made from "kefir grains," it's an amalgamation of milk proteins, probiotic bacteria, yeasts and other fermentation byproducts. (Yogurt's not just for breakfast anymore. Try Lentil Curry with Cashews and Yogurt.)

We All Scream For Ice Cream

Are you a mint-chocolate-chip person? Or do you always go for butter pecan? Any grocer worthy of the name now carries a selection of ice cream large enough to pacify even the most insatiable sweet tooth. Today, we can choose from a bewildering variety of ice milks and ice creams, not to mention those delicious frozen products made from water, rice milk and soy milk.

The fat content of ice creams in general rank on the low end of the scale. (Per 4-ounce serving, low fat ice cream or ice milk must have no more than 3 grams of fat, light or reduced fat ice cream no more than 9% fat and regular ice cream at least 10% fat.)

Know Your Moo Juice

What's the most popular milk worldwide (second to cows' milk, of course)?
Goats' milk — and we're glad! It makes for delicious yogurt, cheese and ice cream.

On a typical dairy farm, how many times a day is each cow milked?
The average cow is milked twice a day, these days mostly by machine.

Is the milk we buy actually packaged on the farm?
Usually, no. From the farm, milk is sent to a facility where it's homogenized and pasteurized before packaging.

Lactose Intolerant?

Despite the broad acceptance of milk as a food in the Western world, most of the world's population can't properly digest it. This phenomenon is known as lactose intolerance; symptoms of lactose intolerance vary greatly, from mild gastrointestinal distress to severe diarrhea and flatulence, headaches or even nausea.

In general, Caucasians — particularly those of Northern European descent — exhibit the greatest tolerance for dairy, with nearly 85% able to consume dairy with no ill effect. Asians and Native Americans have the least tolerance, with fewer than 10% able to consume dairy products.

If consuming dairy products is a problem for you, check out our dairy-free special diet page.