Q: Since milk and cream are ultra-pasteurized I am having a hard time making ricotta and Greek cheese. Do you have any suggestions or do you know where I can purchase pasteurized (not ultra) milk or cream? I know raw milk is not sold in the U.S. I hope you can help.
—Linda James, Rolling Meadows, Ill.
A: First off, there is a ban on the interstate sale of raw milk but not a blanket prohibition on selling raw milk within any of the states. A 2010 map produced by the Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund is a colorful patchwork reflecting different state laws pertaining to raw milk. Some states allow the retail sale of raw milk, which is unpasteurized. Other states permit sales at the farm. Some state require raw milk be sold as pet food. And some states ban the sale of raw milk entirely.
"About 30 states allow for the sale of raw milk in one way or the other,'' says Pete Kennedy, founder of the Falls Church, Va.-based fund, which protects the rights of farmers to sell their products directly to consumers, particularly raw milk. "It's a real hodgepodge."
Illinois permits farms to sell raw milk but the farms can't advertise that fact, says Nicole Moore of the Illinois Milk Producers' Association in Bloomington. So you have to find a farm that sells raw milk, she notes, and you have to show up with your containers to tote the milk home.
Raw milk proponents say it tastes better and is better for you. Raw milk can also make excellent cheese — just ask the French. But the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warns there's a risk to raw milk because it "can harbor dangerous microorganisms that can pose serious health risks to you and your family." People have been sickened or even killed by tainted raw milk and raw milk products over the centuries.
That's why Louis Pasteur, the 19th century French scientist, was universally lauded for developing a process to zap the bad critters in milk by heating the milk to a specific temperature for a certain period of time. That process is called pasteurization. Today, pasteurization usually means heating the milk to a minimum of 161 degrees for 15 seconds, according to a Cornell University Department of Food Science Dairy Foods Science note, or to 145 degrees for 30 minutes.
Pasteurized milk is refrigerated because it can spoil and the shelf life of the milk ranges from 12 to 21 days. Pasteurized milk is what you find in the dairy case at typical supermarkets and other vendors.
Ultra-pasteurized milk, also known as UHT or "ultra-high temperature" milk, is heated to a minimum of 280 degrees for at least two seconds, according to the Cornell fact sheet. The shelf life is much longer than ordinary pasteurized milk, from 30 to 90 days. As you can imagine, retailers like that.
The downside, according to Jim Fraley, manager of the Illinois Milk Producers' Association, is that the higher temperatures of ultra-pasteurization can give the milk a "cooked" flavor because of "the caramelization of some of the sugars present in the milk."
Cristi Menard, head cheese buyer for the Pastoral Artisan Cheese, Bread & Wine shops in Chicago, said the high pasteurization temperatures means any cheese made from that milk will likely have a more rubbery texture.
"For someone who is looking to make a fresh unripened cheese like ricotta, that resulting texture is less than pleasing,'' Menard wrote in an e-mail.
Kirstin Jackson, author of "It's Not You, It's Brie: Unwrapping America's Unique Culture of Cheese" (Perigee, $19), wrote in an e-mail that the high heat "changes the protein structure of the milk and kills off most of the productive bacteria upon which cheesemaking thrives."
What to do? Jackson, a cheese expert, consultant and educator based in Oakland, Calif., suggests contacting the closest natural foods store or cheese shop for sources if you can't find regular pasteurized milk at your local market. (By the way, Jackson will be in Chicago for three days of appearances and book signings beginning April 2. For details, visit her website: itsnotyouitsbrie.com).
Both Menard and Tracy Kellner, owner of Provenance Food and Wine stores in Chicago, recommend you look for milk from Kilgus Farmstead of Fairbury.
"It's pasteurized but not homogenized," says Kellner. "It is nice and rich and thick, probably the closest you can get to raw milk in the city."
Kilgus, Menard writes, "produces excellent quality milk that is great for home cheesemaking."
You can find a list of stores carrying Kilgus products at the dairy's website, kilgusfarmstead.com.