From Farm to Tria
The band Cake asserted that “Sheep go to heaven, goats go to hell,” and while we can’t verify that claim, we can tell you this: sheep’s, goat’s and cow’s milk all produce delicious cheese. But what are the differences - and why do they matter? Read on to learn a little more about each, including why you might prefer some to others. (Plus, nothing makes a cooler party trick than accurately identifying the animal behind the cheese!)
Goats are the smallest of the three animals, and well… they’re the weirdest. For example: They have rectangular pupils, which allow them to see nearly 360 degrees horizontally around them, but have nearly no vertical vision. Goats can also climb steep mountains, and even trees. Sure, they’re a little weird. But they’re also wonderful.
LOOKS LIKE A GOAT
You may have heard that goats will eat anything, including a tin can. That’s not entirely true, but they will eat anything vegetal, including the label off that tin can. Their digestive systems are incredibly efficient, and can process nearly anything, so they can eat whatever they please. Their stomachs break down most any organic matter, including any chemicals that add color, meaning that goat’s milk is bright white; fresh, young goat cheese is as white as snow. Some color will develop as goat cheese ages, but compared to its cow and sheep counterparts, it will always be brighter and whiter.
SMELLS AND TASTES LIKE A GOAT
Goats’ digestions also break down fatty acids, which give cheeses their flavor. In goat’s milk cheese, this means shorter fatty acids, called caproic and caprylic acid, which produce flavors unique to goat’s milk: mineral, citrus, lemon, grass, and a bit of barnyard funk, like hay and must. (Scholars of Romance languages will recognize capr- as the Latin root for goat. These fatty acids are so abundant in goat’s milk they were named after the animal!)
Goat cheese is often known by the French name chèvre, though that typically refers to a specific, classic style of goat cheese: young goat cheese that was originally made only in France’s Loire Valley. Chèvre can be fresh, meaning it doesn’t have a rind (think Shellbark Hollow Farm Sharp II that’s reliably found on the Tria Cafe menu), or aged for just a few weeks. Aged chèvre is traditionally covered in vegetable ash, giving the rind a dark exterior that contrasts with the soft, bright white paste.
Goat’s milk cheese can also be aged longer: we especially love Spain’s Cabra al Vino (that's “drunken goat), or for an extra-aged, hard goat cheese, try Goat Gouda.
Sheep are tricky animals, especially when it comes to breeding - which is, of course, where milk comes from. They produce milk for about 40% less time than goats and cows do, and they produce much less milk for their body weight. This low yield means that sheep’s milk cheese is more expensive. We think it’s an indulgence worth paying for, thanks to its rich texture and flavor.
LOOKS LIKE A SHEEP
Sheep’s milk cheese has an off-white ivory color, but the easiest visual cue is its sheen at room temperature. (Fromager’s Note: You should always savor your cheese at room temperature, the way it’s served at Tria, for the most dynamic, nuanced flavors!) Sheep’s milk has the highest percentage of butterfat of the three milks; in cheese, that fat rises to the surface, giving it an oily, shiny look, almost like the cheese is sweating droplets of mouth-watering flavor.
SMELLS AND TASTES LIKE A SHEEP
Sheep’s milk cheese often tastes of butter or oil thanks to its high butterfat content. It can be nutty, and (unsurprisingly) gamey - think mutton. It has a distinctive lanolin aroma, too: lanolin is found in wool, and eating a sheep’s milk cheese can be like being wrapped in a warm, wool blanket. Ahhhhhhh…
Perhaps the best known sheep cheese is the Manchego from Spain’s semi-arid La Mancha region, where sheep flourish. It’s buttery and nutty, with an instantly recognizable basket-weave patterned rind.
Famed Italian Pecorino comes in many varieties, but it’s all excellent for grating over pasta due to its firm texture and high salt content. This cheese is known best for its role in cooking because it can be on the gamey side.
While cow’s milk is responsible for the majority of the cheeses that we consume, it can be a bit hard to pin down what differentiates it. In other words, when we eat cow’s milk cheese, it’s just “cheese.” It’s the most diverse of the three milks - and not all cow’s milk cheese is created equal.
LOOKS LIKE A COW
Cow’s milk is naturally a bit yellowish in color. That’s because when cows graze on grass, they ingest beta carotene, a yellow-orange pigment found in many plants. (We’re looking at you, carrots.) Cows don’t break down beta carotene the way that goats do, so the color comes out in their milk. We know what you’re thinking: “Cows milk is definitely white. I’ve seen it.” Well, you’re right, too. If cows don’t eat any grass, as is too often the case with industrial dairy cows, then their milk is 100% white. But true grass-fed cow’s milk is always yellowish in color. (Fun fact: the color is more prominent when the milk is frozen, so freeze some of your grass-fed labeled milk and make sure they’re not lying to you!)
SMELLS AND TASTES LIKE A COW
Cow’s milk is the default milk we drink, so when it comes to cheese, it’s a bit like starting from a blank slate. That makes it the most versatile milk for cheesemaking, with everything from earthy Bries to striking Blues to floral Alpines - and so many more. A few commonalities: cow’s milk cheeses have a grassy aroma and are often earthier, as cows take in dirt as they eat. Just as sheep’s milk cheese can be gamey, like mutton, cow’s milk cheese can be beefy like, well, beef. Overall, cow cheese tends to be milky, a familiar flavor to all of us.
There are too many classic cow’s milk cheeses to list them all, but a few that epitomize the animal for us:
Brie uses bloomy molds that give this soft, French cheese flavors of earth, garlic, mushrooms, and onion. It plays nicely on the naturally earthy flavors found in cow’s milk.
Traditional Clothbound Cheddar typically has prominent grassy and herbaceous notes as expected from a grass-heavy diet. True cheddar is a great example of a cheese that is yellowish in color, like the milk.
Stinky washed-rind cheeses such as Munster and Taleggio highlight and intensify the natural meaty flavors of cow’s milk cheese, and can have aromas of beef broth or short ribs.
All three milks produce versatile cheeses, and with a little practice, you’ll be able to guess right away which cheese is made with goat’s, sheep’s or cow’s milk. (Impress your friends! Wow your date!) Better still, knowing the milk from which a cheese is made makes pairing it with wine, beer or even other food a snap, since you already know a little about what it will taste like. When putting together your own cheese board, try to have a little animal variety and showcase the best of each, or go all out with several from one animal to explore the differences.
Of course, your friendly Tria server is always ready to craft a cheese board with your favorites, or to introduce you to something new, like cheese from water buffalo’s milk. Oh no, we missed an animal! Check out our current cheese menu at the Cafes here.
Claire Adler, Friend of Tria and ACS CCP