Most modern dairy products are mere shadows of their rich, creamy, soul-satisfying predecessors. Come with us on a journey to discover how wonderfully delicious and nutritious milk can be.
Once upon a time, cows supplied us with delicious whole milk, wonderful fresh cream, skim milk fit to drink, refreshing soured skim milk, nutrient-rich curd and whey, truly lovely butter and real buttermilk. A single batch of fresh milk could have yielded still other transformations — yogurt, fresh cheese or clotted cream, for instance.
Like so many of today’s supermarket offerings, modern “milk” and dairy products have lost the rich flavors our ancestors enjoyed. Can we recapture the culinary magic that is ancient dairy chemistry? What’s going on with the small scale artisans who still practice this traditional magic? Could our collective voices move the American dairy industry to bring us real milk, in less manhandled and denatured form? We have reasons to be hopeful.
Thousands of years ago in the Near East, somebody saw an animal nursing her young and had the eccentric idea of getting in on the act. A strange custom, this, using another creature’s milk for food. But in regions where it took hold, milk became the object of prehistoric skills that we can still learn from.
In the late 1960s, before waves of immigration brought people from every corner of the globe to the United States, the American food scene had two goals: to get as many different products as possible before the buying public, and to weed out alternatives that would interfere with profits. Both aims merrily coexist today, with lunatic results exemplified by, let’s say, yogurt. You can now walk into a supermarket and take your pick of “amaretto cheesecake” nonfat yogurt, low-fat yogurt with Reese’s Pieces, or milk-free chocolate soy yogurt — without being able to find anything that people brought up on the real thing would recognize as real yogurt worth putting a spoon into.
But today, the tide of immigration is beginning to redraw the picture so that you may now have access to grocery stores with fresh, plain yogurt, or Indian restaurants with delicious buttermilk-based cold beverages. Where Russian immigrants have settled, wonderful sour cream, farmer cheese and butter with the taste of clotted cream have followed. The list can only grow as more foreign-born cooks find themselves able to introduce people to some “new” (though really old) dairy products.
These culinary introductions may help encourage the growing revolt against milk processed to a fare-thee-well before any of us get our hands on it. For all the continued prominence of horrible examples to the contrary, finding honest milk from small dairies run by people who care about well-tended animals and fresh flavor is more possible than ever. (To find one near you, search at Local Harvest or Eat Wild. For small-scale dairy equipment, visit Bob-White Systems.)
I think it is realistic to hope that the United States will become a place where the best elements of all the world’s great dairy traditions flourish. That prospect makes this historical look at the worst side of our dairying traditions less discouraging than it would be otherwise.
Something curious happened to our ideas about milk about two centuries ago. Residents of England and North America began placing great emphasis on one particular way of consuming it: in fresh, drinkable form.
Up to a century or two earlier, most people actually drank soured raw milk. This is not the same as the soured pasteurized milk that may be in your refrigerator right now. When raw milk sours, lactic acid bacteria in the air create a fermentation that preserves the milk and yields delicious, tangy flavors. When pasteurized milk sours, any number of other bacteria may be responsible, and they aren’t going to produce the same result.
Then around that time, an urban market for fresh milk began to take shape, fostered by ideas about health that in a few generations would make fresh milk a nearly mandatory part of everyone’s diet, especially children’s.
A shift in priorities occurred in 18th- and 19th-century England. Farmers saw financial opportunities in feeding cities, which coincided with the emerging popular notion that the acidic fermentation of foods was dangerous. Meanwhile, more and more consumers were city people who had never acquired the skills of fermenting bread doughs or milk, or any familiarity with the resulting sour flavors. It was not difficult to convince a sizable audience that bread and milk were best when “sweet” and “pure.” By 1830, medical opinion unanimously held that unsoured milk was indispensable for children and healthful for everyone else.
Yet a major worry dogged “Nature’s Perfect Food”: Milk-borne epidemics were enough of a reality at the end of the 19th century to spur a successful pasteurization campaign. The first common pasteurization process involved heating milk to about 145 degrees Fahrenheit and maintaining that temperature for about 30 minutes. But that wouldn’t be the end of the story. In the 1930s, many milk production plants switched to another method involving not separate batches but a continuous pipe feed of milk from different animals, pasteurized at “high-temperature/short-time,” or HTST. This method requires a temperature of 161 degrees maintained for 15 seconds (not minutes). Since about 1970, “ultrapasteurization” — at or above 280 degrees for about 2 seconds — has been gaining ground.
Though the pasteurization campaign was a public-health success in many ways, it played a distorting role in others. In its single-minded focus, it helped wipe out home cooks’ already fading knowledge of how to work with milk for multiple purposes. By the turn of the 20th century, Western food preferences had little room for soured milk.
As the volume of milk produced by the nation’s farms grew in the 20th century, the system became riddled with struggles for competitive advantage. Investment in advanced devices, such as electric milking machines and refrigerated bulk tanks, became essential to dairy farmers’ survival. Another expensive machine that people are likely to know less about is the cow herself, as reinvented for our time.
In the early 19th century, scientific breeders began distinguishing the best milkers and working to accentuate their supposed advantages. In the 1940s, a good milk cow produced about 4,500 pounds of milk per year. Today’s cows produce 20,000 pounds or more per year. While the number of dairy cows in this country shrank from about 18 million to 9 million between 1960 and 2005, the total amount of milk they produce increased from 120 billion to 177 billion pounds during the same period. Modern industrial cows’ entire system is concentrated on making milk, frequently to the point of endangering life and limb.
But what are we calling “milk”? Genetic propensities to give richer milk and more milk tend not to go together. Today’s supercows produce extraordinary volumes of milk, but it is so diluted that it can almost be said to have been watered inside the cow. Breeding by itself is only half of the story behind today’s super-high-producing cows. The other half is feeding, which has changed drastically.
The unimproved cows of yesteryear ate what cows were made to digest: grass. Ruminants live in delicate symbiosis with the bacterial and protozoal guests in their digestive systems. Altering the cows’ diet kills off some species while encouraging others, until the chemistry of the rumen (the part of the cow’s stomach where cellulose begins to be digested) is thrown out of whack. This does the cow no good but, depending on what you’re feeding her, may make her give more milk. You can stimulate dairy cows to higher yields by keeping them on high-energy rations with large amounts of grains, especially corn. But this practice changes the only slightly acid environment of the cow’s normal rumen to a lower (more acidic) pH. The unhappy animal often loses her appetite. She is constantly thirsty and tries to right matters by drinking more water, which means more — but thinner — milk. She may develop full-blown acidosis, which will release infectious bacteria that make her even sicker. In addition, lowered ruminal pH encourages the growth of E. coli bacteria that survive through the entire digestive tract and persist in her manure, which now often includes the virulent 0157:H7 E. coli strain that has caused so many serious outbreaks of foodborne illness.
The stresses on high-producing cows don’t end there. Since the mid-1990s farmers have made their cows even higher-producing through injections of the hormone bovine somatotropin (BST), also called “bovine growth hormone” (BGH). More precisely, this is Elanco’s (a division of Eli Lilly) genetically engineered, “recombinant” version of the naturally occurring cow hormone. The recombinant version is known as rBST or rBGH. Much controversy rages around it.
An angry faction has denounced rBST as harmful. No clear medical consensus has emerged on the issue, but it’s obvious that whatever increases milk production in already high-yielding cows also increases the physical stress on creatures that are stressed to begin with. Not only do cows injected with rBST have a higher incidence of udder infections and high white blood cell counts in their milk, but rBST also tends to shorten a cow’s life expectancy — which has been on a steep downward slope over the last half century. Years ago, a well-treated cow might have lived out something close to the 20-year potential of the species. In 1950, farmers might have kept cows milking for a dozen years after their first lactation at about age 2. Today a production span of only two or three years before “culling” isn’t uncommon.
Modern dairy management also ensures that during their short lives, many of today’s cows will have to be repeatedly dosed with antibiotics to pull them through their latest illness. The milk from cows under antibiotic treatment is supposed to be dumped. Nonetheless, contamination is regularly caught in inspections, and whether it is sometimes not caught is anybody’s guess.
The cholesterol wars and the trend toward low-fat milk arrived several generations after three strategic developments that didn’t do much for the cause of good plain milk but would enable the industry to reinvent itself. The first was the mechanical separation of cream. The next was a test for measuring the fat content of milk — at the time, the chief indicator of quality. The third was homogenization, or the technique of crushing milkfat globules into droplets too small to rise to the surface in a layer of cream, or the “creamline.”
Homogenization had to overcome several obstacles before it could be coupled with the first two advances. Homogenizing milk disrupts the chemical structure of milkfat so drastically that it releases a torrent of enzymes that promptly turn raw milk rancid. Even when dairy chemists learned to sidestep rancidity, there remained the age-old consumer habit of judging milk by its richness — i.e., the thickness of the cream layer on top. Few people wanted homogenized milk. The turning point came with a shift to cardboard containers in place of returnable milk bottles. This was the perfect moment for abolishing creamline milk and substituting a product whose appearance had previously weighed against it.
A dairy could now calculate the amount of fat in incoming milk, completely remove it, and homogenize it back into the milk in any desired proportion (while also putting any surplus cream to other purposes, such as more lucrative butter or ice cream). In effect, “whole milk” could now be whatever the industry said it was.
Today’s legal minimum standard for the fat content of whole milk is 3.25 percent. But is the milk “whole”? In 1929, major dairy cow breeds showed milkfat ranges from 2.9 to 8.4 percent. The average for American industrial dairy herds today is about 4 percent, with the best herds easily achieving 5 to 5.5 percent. Yet, after more than half a century of almost universal homogenization, it would be fiscal insanity for most processors to sell anything mirroring the composition of real whole milk. Indeed, consumers have trouble grasping that the usual homogenized product is not whole.
From the ’60s or ’70s on, hasty public health re-education campaigns converted consumers to “the less, the better” attitudes regarding fat percentages, with zero being the new ideal. For a long time, the hardest sell remained zero-fat skim milk, and for good reason: The usual commercial versions were a thin, vapid travesty of decent hand-skimmed milk. Eventually, processors hit on the stratagem of using dried skim milk solids to add body (not flavor).
Other possibilities opened up with news of lactose intolerance. Instead of acknowledging that people do not in the least need to drink fresh milk, chemists began working to produce something that would approximate milk without lactose. No technique so far makes lactose-reduced milk taste like real milk. Taste, however, doesn’t seem to be the point.
If your head isn’t already spinning from this surfeit of choices, some retail sources also tout calcium- and fiber-fortified milk. Among the final absurdities in this sequence of nutritional bad jokes are “filled” and imitation milks. The American Heart Association has certified a product made by emulsifing skim milk with sunflower oil. Soy-based imitation milks, with heavy doses of sugar and additives, are rapidly encroaching on real milk sales.
What’s the reason behind all of the bastardized products flooding the market? It’s “high-fat” whole milk’s reputation as a killer, which it acquired during the last half of the 20th century. Today, a great deal of the diet-and-cardiac-mortality gospel has had to be profoundly revised or thrown out. But for some reason the milk parts of the creed have never come in for serious re-examination. Probably most people who think of themselves as nutrition-savvy would be astonished to learn that any evidence of whole milk being a ticket to an early grave is conspicuous by its absence.
Another controversy has pitted mainstream interests against people looking for alternatives in organic farming. Organic milk is supposed to come from animals that have not been treated with rBST or fed non-organic crops. But pious-sounding rhetoric and pictures of contented cows on milk cartons are no guarantee of humanely tended animals or more “natural” milk. The great preponderance of organic milk comes from a few very large producers, and the milk, which travels thousands of miles to reach retail shelves, has been produced through the same methods as conventional milk. This situation is improving thanks to the work of the folks at The Cornucopia Institute. Why should we support new-style versions of factory farming clad in airs of moral superiority?
I ignore every organic brand of dairy products unless it has another solid selling point — for example, also being unhomogenized, or coming from small dairies in my own part of the country. I urge other consumers to exercise judgment about the “organic” label, and to seek alternatives to mass-produced conventional milk in places such as farmers markets or retail sources that encourage locally based agriculture.
About 20 years ago, I went to a “milk tasting” meant to illuminate some of the factors affecting milk flavor, such as what animals it comes from and what sort of processing it undergoes. The next week a New Yorker reporter had a snicker at the general foofaraw. Moral of the story, as of 1991: Modern dairying had been working to treat an innately variable, highly perishable biological secretion like a bulk commodity long enough for people to chortle over even a modest attempt to call this absurdity into question.
I doubt the exercise would draw the same put-down today. The idea that milk is actually capable of tasting like something is not quite as foreign to people today who think about what they eat. What now seems to be happening is a more liberating perception of food as a source of both sustenance and pleasure.
A gathering conflux of the independent-minded is recognizing the really great thing about today’s food scene: It gives us the foundation of several different kinds of enjoyable and nutritious diets based on time-honored foodways of peoples everywhere. It feeds and nourishes a mentality that seeks flexible answers to the question of what to eat rather than competing doctrines about what not to eat. If we can shed the notion that chugging down so much low-fat milk a day is a duty, perhaps we will be free to discover different forms of it as a joyful part of our diet.
Check out some of Anne Mendelson’s fabulous milk recipes from around the world:
To learn about raw milk issues, check out The Raw Milk Debate: Rawness and Rationality.
Want to know how to choose the best milk and cream for different recipes from among the many options? See Label Babel: Buying Milk and Cream.
To read more about milk, order Mendelson's incredible book, Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk Through the Ages, which comes with 115 more delicious dairy recipes!
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