Taste foundations: How the flavour of milk can vary, and why

Cheese expert Will Studd

A cheese's flavour is not just in the hands of its maker; it goes right back to the milk. Aleksandra Bliszczyk speaks to Pepe Saya butter founder Pierre Issa, cheese expert Will Studd, and Almond Milk Co. founder Cameron Earl to find out the building blocks that go into dairy (or dairy-alternative) products.

Not all milks are cut from the same cloth. Milks from cows fed on hay, grains or grass can be chalk and cheese; and whether a nut is activated or dry-roasted can change the taste of its “milk” entirely. Diners and customers are looking increasingly for local dairy products, in all their glorious forms, so it pays to know what’s what before putting in your orders.

DAIRY

Let's go back to the beginning. Good dairy products start with good milk. “The breed and genetics of the cow, [its] diet, season [and] milking environment ... are very important,” says cheese specialist Will Studd.

Starting with the beast itself, the breed can determine its milk’s application. In Australia roughly 70 per cent of dairy cattle are of the Holstein breed, as these cows are known to produce high milk yields over their lifetimes. But smaller dairy farms are branching out, rearing less-common breeds such as Jersey, Brown Swiss, Ayrshire, Australian Red and Illawarra in order to produce milks better suited to specific uses.

When looking at butterfat content, Holstein cow's milk has only 3.7 per cent, whereas the milk from Jersey cows, for example, sits at around 4.7 per cent, making for a richer cream. The milk from Brown Swiss cows is high in protein (3.5 per cent), as is the milk from Illawarra cows (3.29 per cent), so their milks are ideal for cheese production. This is because 38 per cent of the solid matter in milk is made of protein, and 80 per cent of milk’s protein is casein, which is the predominant protein found in cheese.

The next thing to consider when choosing the right milk for your application is the cow's diet. Up to 65 per cent of Australia's total dairy cattle's feed requirements are met with grazing on open fields, with the remainder made up by grains and hay.

“Cows, like humans, need variety in their diets. Too much of one thing and they fall sick,” says founder of Australian butter brand Pepe Saya, Pierre Issa.

A cow fed on a wide range of grasses will produce a more typically “milky” flavour, while predominantly-grain-fed cow’s milk has fewer essential fatty acids (like alpha-linolenic acid and omega-3), will appear more yellow in colour, and has a milder and less-balanced flavour overall.

In one day, a single cow can eat up to 100kgs of wet grass and drink 100 litres of water in order to produce just 20 litres of milk.

Cow’s milk is made up of protein, sugar and fat, as well as a number of vitamins and minerals, so naturally, the cow needs to get all those from its diet for them to be in its milk.

One of Pepe Saya’s suppliers is Country Valley in Picton, NSW. Owner John Fairley feeds his herd of around 145 Friesian-Jersey-cross on rye grass and clover (high in protein) in the mornings, and harder grasses (high in fat) in the afternoon. The quality of the cow's feed – lush pastures for most of the year and grains in the dry months – is constantly monitored to ensure the cow gets all the nutrients required to produce balanced milk.

And you can taste if it's fresh. “Milk is a bit like fruit, it bruises easily, and the quality can be lowered if it is not treated carefully,” says Fairley, whose cow’s milk has a 48-hour turnaround from udder to shelf.

A cow's environment also plays a major role. Mastitis, the inflammation and infection in the udder, can be transmitted cow-to-cow – sadly not uncommon in large herds. The primary habitats of the bacteria that cause mastitis are on the milking machine, the milker's hands, the sponges used to wash the cow's teats, or in feces, soil, bedding, or water, so a cow’s home must be clean and natural.

“80 per cent of the diverse flora responsible for producing flavour in a cheese is introduced at the point of milking, from the skin of the cows udder, and this is influenced by the environment,” says Studd.

A balanced diet promotes the growth of good bacteria in the digestive tract and udder, which prevent mastitis and help produce full-flavoured milk.

With more tolerance for our own intolerances these days, and a greater collective awareness of what we're putting in our bodies, the demand for organic produce has never been higher. In fact, Australia's organic industry has grown 88 per cent since 2012.

“There is definitely consumer demand for organics, especially within dairy,” says Issa, who launched Pepe Saya's organic range in 2017.

Pepe Saya's original butter is cultured and therefore slightly tangy. The organic butter is simply certified-organic fresh cream that's churned, salted using Olsson's Salt (or left unsalted), and hand-packed. “It is a ‘sweet’ variety butter with no culture added to the cream. The flavour is for people who like their butter ‘buttery’, with a really creamy flavour,” he says.

Pepe Saya butter

Organic milk generally has the potential for a more diverse flavour profile, because a wider variety of plant species will grow on the grazing pastures.

“Cheese handmade from the milk of a single farm, particularly one with a small grass-fed herd and rare breeds, undoubtedly produces the most interesting cheese,” says Studd.

And like in any meat, the animal’s mental well-being affects its milk, as “a stressed cow means stressed milk,” says Studd.

DAIRY ALTERNATIVES

Almonds, cashews, macadamias, oats and rice don’t feel stress, (thank God) but just like animal’s milk, a nut or grain’s environment will affect the taste of the “milk” you can shmush out of it. While it’s not technically milk – more nut juice – the demand for the plant-based varieties is soaring, and it's no longer a cow's market. A few years ago, no one knew you could get this cloudy, frothable liquid from nuts. Now, almost every cafe in Australia offers almond-milk lattes, and any foodservice business not willing to jump on the bandwagon is going to get left behind.

Cameron Earl, founder of Melbourne-based company Almond Milk Co. and owner of Guild Cafe inside Victoria's State Library, says that before a nut is even squeezed, its freshness, whether it's been refrigerated after harvest, and even its varietal can determine the milk's flavour.

“There is certainly a noticeable difference when new season almonds arrive and we taste our first batch of almond milk made with it [and] there are certainly differences in the type grown,” says Earl.

Nonpareil is the most commonly grown almond varietal around the world, with Monterey, Butte and Carmel varietals also widely available. “We choose to use an Australian Nonpareil varietal as they have more neutral and palatable flavour, and bloom earlier in the season. Their Carmel cousins bloom later and have a more intense almond flavour,” he says. Of all the common almond breeds, Carmel is the highest in benzaldehyde, the chemical responsible for the unique and bizarre almond-essence flavour.

There are four main steps that go into producing Almond Milk Co.'s almond milk, says Earl. First, raw almonds are sourced whole, not broken, from the Barossa Valley. Secondly, the almonds are soaked so that they soften and sweeten. This “activation” process also breaks down some of the nut's natural acids that act as nutrient inhibitors, making the final product more nutritious.

No heat is applied to an “activated” almond milk, and it is often labeled as “raw”.
Almond Milk Co.'s almonds are “activated” before they're blended to enhance the flavour, but many producers simply blend dry-roasted almonds.

“Heat undoubtedly changes the flavour profile of the milk as it does with any other fresh food product. Dry-roasted nuts have a distinct flavour,” says Earl.

The third step is blending. “We put our milk through a dual blending phase to make sure all solids are significantly emulsified,” says Earl, who uses nothing but almonds, filtered water, salt and dates. Lastly, the filtration or extraction process will determine the ratio of solids to liquids.

The almond-to-water ratio is the fundamental flavour-determining factor. Think of the difference between full-cream milk and thinned out skim milk. A “full-cream” fresh almond milk will contain around one quarter or one third almonds, and the nut content can mean the difference between a milk that froths for coffee and one that doesn't.

“There are many products on the market with hardly any almonds at all. The lowest we have seen is 2.5 per cent. As this affects the consistency and the flavour, cheaper filling agents are added to bulk out the product. These can range from emulsifiers to oils, not to mention the other additives to stabilise the suspension,” says Earl.

When selecting a high-quality nut or grain milk, the first thing to check is nut or grain content. The higher this is, the more flavour, and the more “milky” the consistency. You should also check for emulsifiers because, depending on the milk's culinary application, they can act differently to those without. And finally, choose local. Milk made near your venue will always taste better.

Pierre Issa making Pepe Saya butter