New Research Concludes Pasture Cheeses are "Quantifiably Different"

A final report soon to be published by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture concludes something every cheesemaker and cheese enthusiast has suspected for years: that there are “quantified differences in color, texture, melting points and other attributes” between pasture-fed and conventional dairy products, especially cheese and butter. 

An upcoming report titled: “Growing the Pasture-Grazed Dairy Sector in Wisconsin,” is the conclusion of a four-year research project led by Laura Paine, grazing and organic specialist at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture. Paine pursued grant funding for the project after research by Dr. Scott Rankin at the University of Wisconsin in 2005 showed pasture-fed cheddar cheese was creamier in texture and more golden in color than the same cheese produced from the milk of confinement-fed cows.

Research started in 2009, as milk was collected from five grass-based dairies in southwest Wisconsin three times during the grazing season for three years. Milk was collected from a confinement farm for comparison, and batches of two to four dairy products, including yogurt, butter and cheese, were made at the University of Wisconsin Food Science Department by Dr. Rankin and his staff.

The products were then compared side-by-side in three ways: analysis of chemical composition, evaluation of consumer preferences, and investigation of cooking qualities. Dr. Rankin also conducted testing to measure differences in chemical composition, including fat, protein, somatic cells, lactose and other compounds. Samples were provided to program partner chefs Jack Kaestner and Leah Caplan for evaluation in cooking.

While the research failed to identify a single compound or “smoking gun” to explain the differences the team found between pasture-fed and conventional milk, both the scientists and chefs noted “quantifiable differences” in color, texture and melting points. Dr. Rankin noted that pasture milk has a “grassy note.”

“This research proves something cheesemakers have known for years,” said Master Cheesemaker Bob Wills, a project partner and owner of Cedar Grove Cheese and Clock Shadow Creamery. “We’ve always entered contests with cheeses made from grass-fed animals, and those cheeses have always won awards. We just didn’t tell anyone our secret.”

To view more comments from Wills, as well as insight from dairy farmer Bert Paris, cheesemakers Bob Wills and Mike Gingrich, and chefs Jack Kaestner and Leah Caplan, view the short video (produced as part of the research project), below.

According to the report, Wills’ cheesemaking “secret” can be pinpointed to three attributes special to pasture-fed dairy products. First, they are more golden in color; second, they are creamier in texture; and third, the flavor and aroma are different. Some describe flavors and aromas from pasture-fed products as “more complex” while others note “earthy, grassy” flavors.

However, the different flavors found in pastured milk can sometimes be perceived negatively by consumers, Dr. Rankin notes. In professional sit-down taste tests with consumers, most preferred the taste of conventional fluid milk in a glass, noting the grass-based milk tasted too grassy. On the other hand, almost all preferred the taste, appearance, mouth feel and aroma of unsalted butter and cheese made with pasture milk.

Anecdotal evidence shows similar results. At an October 2010 Grass-Fed Tasting Event, 60 participants tasted side-by-side croissants, cupcakes with butter cream frosting, bread with butter, and fish with sage-garlic browned butter sauce, each made with both conventional and pasture milk. The majority rated the pasture products higher than the conventional ones.

Rather than proclaim pasture-fed milk products to be better, the report focuses on how they are different. Nowhere is that more clear than in the results of a September 10, 2012 cheesemaking day at Clock Shadow Creamery, where research participants were invited to spend a day making two vats of identical cheese: one with pasture-fed milk, and the other with conventional milk.

Crafted on site by Wisconsin cheesemaker Willi Lehner, the cheeses were an experimental variety that Lehner had learned how to make just a few months earlier during a trip to Lichtensteig, Switzerland from famous Swiss cheesemaker Willi Schmid. During the visit (in which the Swiss Willi asked the Wisconsin Willi if he was a spy), Lehner learned to make a Tuggerbach Canton, a non-pressed cheese in the Gruyere family of Alpine cheeses.

“We visited Willi’s brother’s place, his Brown Swiss cows and the pastures,” Lehner said. “I got to smell the hay, which smelled like vanilla and meadow. Then I smelled the milk, which smelled like vanilla and meadow. Then, when we made the cheese, the same aromas were present. That was really the first time I made a connection between what cows eat and the cheese made from their milk.”

While the forages of Brown Swiss Alpine cows are no doubt different from the grasses eaten by southwest Wisconsin dairy cows, five months after making the Wisconsin cheeses at Clock Shadow Creamery, the same “grassy” aroma and flavors are present in the pasture-fed cheese made by Lehner.

In a side-by-side comparison of the Wisconsin cheeses (see photo below), the grass-fed cheese, on the left, is slightly more golden. The aroma is more earthy and fruity, while the conventional cheese on the right, simply smells clean and milky. The flavors are also distinctly different. The pasture-fed cheese is more complex with a lingering finish. The conventional cheese is more of a one-note cheese with a clean finish.

“When you taste the two side by side, there is no doubt a remarkable difference,” says dairy farmer Bert Paris, who farms using rotational grazing, and whose milk was used to make the pasture-fed cheese in September. “It validates everything we’ve been saying for years.”

So what are the next steps after the report is published? Paine says she’d like to organize grass-based dairy farmers to facilitate pooling milk, marketing efforts and branding, perhaps even developing a checkoff to generate funds for marketing. She’d also like to work with the industry to create a standard to ensure the integrity of a product marketed as “grass fed” or “pasture fed.”

“This project has been four years in the making,” Paine says. “The research shows the differences that processors and farmers have been noting for years in pasture milk and dairy products. Now it’s just a matter of how we move forward with that knowledge.”

Slow Food

Matt Feifarek, chair of Slow Food Madison, said yesterday that good food is born not just from good ideas, but from good ideals. In other words, it’s not enough to make a food that tastes delicious. That same food should also be made in a way that is good, clean and fair.

As a way of living and eating, Slow Food has got it going on. At its annual member meeting yesterday in Madison, about 75 people gathered to celebrate the spirit of Slow Food in Madison, which it turns out, was one of the first adopters of the movement in the United States. Madison Chefs Leah Caplan and Tami Lax chartered Slow Food Madison back in 1999, before Slow Food USA even hit New York in 2000. As usual, our city’s foodie ladies led the way, and today, Slow Food Madison boasts about 250 supporters.

At the meeting, much of the talk by Feifarek and Slow Food District Governor Martha Davis Kipcak centered around the “fair” in Slow Food’s mantra. Because let’s face it, good, clean and fair food is not available in all parts of our city, state or country, and is not affordable to all people in our society.

This thought made me remember a commencement speech given by L’Etoile Founder and Chef-Author Odessa Piper, to the graduating class of 2006 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Here’s my favorite part:

“Hey, if all you can afford to eat is fast food, you can still eat it slowly. And don’t discount the big solutions that can emerge out of small acts of faith in an idea. In my life, I have witnessed the decline and rebirth of entire farming communities in Wisconsin. By the ’70s so many small farms were losing their hold in an ever-industrializing agriculture. Conventional farming practices were sending too much of Wisconsin’s best topsoil down the troubled Kickapoo River. And yet the same region now has one of the highest concentrations of vibrant, vital small family farms organic farms, sustainable farms in the country and is rebuilding its communities through a new urban/rural partnership.”

Piper continued: “I predict that the good farmers, the citizens and the partners, and educators at the University of Wisconsin and all educators of this state of Wisconsin will lead the country in the coming decades by demonstrating regionally reliant alternatives for our food systems to the current oil-dependent food distribution system that we have. And I believe that this good state and this partnership in the Wisconsin Idea are going to do much, much more.”

Every once in a while when I sneak a small fry and chocolate shake at McDonald’s, I think of Piper’s comments. There was a time in my life when meager starting salaries meant that going to McDonald’s on a Saturday night with our 15-month-old daughter was that week’s one and only night out – a highlight filled with Happy Meals and a McDonald’s “Play Land” with pink slides and plastic ball pit. As a family, we were on our way to realizing what good food was, but we didn’t yet have the resources to eat it full-time. Today, when I open my fridge and see an entire drawer of artisan cheeses made by hand from that same Driftless Region of which Piper remembers, I appreciate the good, clean and fair food I now enjoy on a regular basis.

I am proud to be a member of Slow Food and am appreciative this young organization is working to attain a goal of finding ways of good, clean and fair food for all. If you’re not already a member of your local chapter, check out Slow Food USA to see where you can make a difference.