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Milk for Cheesemaking: An Overview

When choosing milk for cheesemaking, it helps to have a basic knowledge of the fundamental makeup of milk and the variations in milk from different animals.


Milk is made up of four main components:


Water is the main ingredient in milk. The cheesemaker’s goal is to remove a very large portion of the water content from the milk to make cheese. The water content of a finished cheese is the main factor in the shelf life or aging period of that cheese.


Lactose is a type of sugar found exclusively in milk and is transformed by the cultures you add during the cheesemaking process into lactic acids and carbon dioxide.


Lipids (or butterfat) are fat globules and small proteins in the milk, which contribute to the opaque white color in milk. Sometimes, vitamin-rich lipids will contain carotene, which will cause the milk to look slightly yellow or orange. The actual level of butterfat in milk depends on the type of milk and the source animal’s breed, weight, and diet. Milk fat is extremely important in the cheesemaking process, as the triglycerides contain 98% of the overall milk fat, and they will be broken down to free some of those fatty acid compounds which help cheese develop to its full flavor potential.


Proteins in milk consist of whey protein and casein, or milk proteins. The most important factor of this duo is the caseins, which will bind together to play a main role in the solidification of the milk during the cheesemaking process. Whey proteins are contained in the yellow, watery whey.


Cow's Milk

  • Most common type of milk used in cheesemaking.
  • Has the most developed arsenal of recipes and styles of cheese.
  • Around 87% water.
  • Fat content between 3.5% and 5%.
  • Lactose is usually around 5%.
  • Jersey or Guernsey cows make milk that is richer, sweeter, and makes more flavorful cheese than milk from Holsteins.
  • Available year-round and in most grocery stores.

Goat's Milk

  • Higher amounts of the enzyme lipase make this a more flavorful milk.
  • Around 88% water, 3.9% lactose, and 2.5% proteins.
  • Can have a higher fat content than cow's milk, depending on the specific goat breed. Nigerian Dwarf and Nubian goats make especially rich milk, high in butterfat.
  • Fat globules within the milk are smaller, and stay suspended in the milk more easily than in cow's milk.

Sheep's Milk

  • Richer milk all around, even richer than Jersey cow's milk.
  • Around 82% water, 6.5% lipids, 4.5% lactose and 5.5% protein.
  • It has been described as golden and fatty, and it can have a bit of a musky sheep flavor.
  • Wonderful for rich, decadent cheeses like feta, manchego, and blues. Contains twice as many solids as goat's or cow's milk. The result is very high yields of most cheeses: 2 pounds of soft cheese per gallon of sheep's milk.
  • Usually only available seasonally.


There are a few factors that will affect the milk, making the percentages here and the standardized percentages used in cheese formulas vary just a bit:

  • Diet of the milk animal
  • Breed of the milk animal
  • Health of the milk animal
  • Milking methods
  • Storage methods
  • Stage of lactation (how long after calving the milk was produced)
  • Time of year

    download our milk kefir guide and recipe book

Knowing about the milk you use for cheesemaking projects will help you to produce the best cheese possible.