A society of well-informed milk drinkers

what is milk

I wonder what the world would be like if we identified ourselves – before race or nationality or gender or political party – by the kind of milk we drink.

Imagine, the skim milk and whole milk diehards, scrunching up their noses and eyebrows at each other from opposite sides of the aisle, the 2%ers in the middle looking back and forth at each camp: “Can’t we just compromise?” In the corner sit the raw milk enthusiasts, whispering to each other that the entire room of fanatics and moderates don’t even know what they’re missing. Some of the vegans are outside protesting.

But truly, in this world we live in, how many of us have thought about milk beyond the way it feels in our mouths and stomachs? How often do we think about where it comes from (yes, utters, but like, where it really comes from)?

Know what’s what: Milk

For the sake of simplicity, I’m referring specifically in this post to milk from cows.

PASTEURIZED MILK

In many states, pasteurization is required by law for milk to be sold in grocery stores or even by farmers. Pasteurization is: heating milk and then cooling it to eliminate certain bacteria in raw milk. It’s usually heated to at least 161.6 degrees Fahrenheit for 15 seconds.

ULTRA-PASTEURIZED MILK

This milk is heated to 280 degrees Fahrenheit for at least two seconds. Ultra-pasteurized milk (which requires an “ultra-pasteurized” label) has a shelf-life of up to 9 months.

HOMOGENIZED MILK

Homogenization is a mechanical process separate from pasteurization. It doesn’t involved additives. Homogenization is: breaking down fat molecules in milk so that they don’t separate. In non-homogenized milk, all the fat molecules rise to the top (That’s cream).

Why do it? Homogenization makes processing easier for dairies (for reasons ranging from mixing milk from different herds and extending shelf life to simply appealing to consumers who are not used to having to shake their milk cartons). It also makes creating skim, 1% and 2% milks easier.

WHOLE, SKIM, 1% and 2% MILKS

During manufacturing, different processes are employed to remove fat from and sometimes add fat back into milk.

Whole milk is unadulturated, with around 3.5% fat.

2%, 1% and skim (aka fat-free or non-fat) milks each have some dairy fat removed, making them less creamy. It should be noted here that nutritionists and foodies alike are becoming more and more on-board with the idea that not all fats are bad, and the argument rings true for dairy fats as well.

RAW MILK

Raw milk is: milk straight from the cow. It’s not pasteurized or homogenized. Cream rises to the top, and the bacteria and enzymes stay put. (Like with fats, there’s a whole world of pro-bacteria activists.)

Disclaimer: I drink raw milk throughout most of the year, so when I talk about bias, I am including my own in the mix.

Different states have different laws regarding raw milk. Here in Colorado, consuming raw milk is legal only if it’s from one’s own cow. I like the rich taste and the feeling I get from drinking raw milk, so I legally own a part of a cow – a “herd share” – that lives on a nearby farm.

Find your state’s raw milk laws here.

Raw milk is widely debated, and it should be considered, when looking at various research studies, who might be funding the research. This very biased infographic by the CDC shows us that the federal government has taken a clear stance against raw milk.

RAW VS. PASTEURIZED

The truth is, you will probably find a logical argument for whatever you want to believe. Whether you’re concerned most about safety, nutritional benefit or supporting your local community, there are pros and cons to both types. Different studies, statistics, anecdotes, paradigms and perspectives will tell you different stories about raw milk vs. pasteurized milk.

Your best bet is to do your research and know your farmer. Before you judge either side, consider the difference (or rather, the similarity) between putting all your trust in the fact that a product made it onto the shelf at the grocery story, and buying raw milk from a stranger on the side of the road.

The same holds true for organic vs. non-organic…

ORGANIC MILK VS. NON-ORGANIC MILK

These are both pretty vague categories, as farming practices for both organic and non-organic farms can vary. While organic dairies are subject to more specific laws, the label (or lack thereof) doesn’t tell the whole story.

Here’s the gist, from a great article by Sarah Jampel:

As background, organic milk comes from cows that have been raised according to organic farming practices: The animals are never given antibiotics, artificial growth hormones, non-organic feed, or GMO feed, and they must be let out to organic pasture for at least 120 days of the grazing season…

If I’m unsure of where the milk is coming from — and thus how the animals are cared for, what they’re generally fed with, how large the herd size is — I’d turn to organic because many of these variables are dictated by law…

But when I do have time to do the research to find a dairy or distributor I trust, I certainly wouldn’t rule out conventional milk. It’s less expensive — a real factor for me as a consumer — and, if I know where it’s coming from, there’s a chance it might be just as good for all parties involved.

Self-identified milk enthusiasts

Now what would our milk world look like, with all of us well-informed milk drinkers chit-chatting and sipping left and right?

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Know what’s what: Butter

Know what's what butter

As someone who used to literally eat packets of butter at restaurants, the fact that butter’s gotten a bad rap is quite personal.

While many non-butter “tastes-just-like-butter!” butter imposter stack the shelves of grocery stores, I’m still optimistic that the margarine fad will continue to fade into oblivion as more of us dive into the enchanting world of butter.

Because real butter is actually delicious and there’s nothing like it. It’s as simple a truth as the simplicity of butter-making itself. Once you go full-on good butter, there’s no going back.

So in this post, I’ll hit on a few real-butter tid-bits, leaving margarine out of the picture for now. The gist: Margarine is a synthetic (manufactured) substitute for butter. It’s made from vegetable oils and processed: heated, hydrogenated, bleached, emulsified, and exposed to chemicals and additives. No judgment here – That’s just what margarine is.

What is butter?

When milk comes out of the cow, it’s still raw milk – that is, it’s not pasteurized (sterilized with heat). The cream in milk rises to the top (leaving “skim milk” at the bottom), like oil and vinegar separate in a jar.

Butter is cream, churned.

Different churning styles range from shaking cream in a jar for 15 minutes to mixing cream in a food processor, and straining. But the concept is the same: Butter is cream, churned, and salt is added or not.

SWEET CREAM BUTTER

Sweet cream butter is made from fresh cream. The cream can be pasteurized or raw, but not cultured (that’s next). The “sweet” part is a bit deceiving, as sweet cream butter is not exactly sweet. It can be salted or unsalted.

CULTURED BUTTER

Cultured butter is made from slightly fermented cream, rather than fresh cream. Often a culture is added, unless the butter is made with raw (unpasteurized) cream. Cultured butter will have a slightly sour taste to it – a rich tang that accompanies many fermented foods.

EUROPEAN-STYLE BUTTER

Every region develops its own culinary styles, so even French butter and Irish butter will taste differently. “European-style” butter refers to a general style of butter-making that is traditional throughout Europe. In this style, cultured cream is churned for a longer period of time, achieving a higher butterfat content (at least 82%). European-style butters have a rich flavor because of the higher butterfat content. According to Kitchn writer Hali Bey Ramdene, “More butterfat also means a softer texture, faster melt, and often, a saturated yellow hue.”

And there you have it – Not all butters are created equally. (You already know this if you’ve ever tried using the wrong butter in your Bullet coffee.) Let these small distinctions be merely your invitation into the enchanting world of butter. A rich and luxurious spectrum of flavor awaits you.

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Know what’s what: Chocolate

cocoa beans

With Valentine’s Day around the corner, many of us are thinking about chocolate. Or, if you’re like me, thinking about chocolate is just one of those things we do ordinarily.

Either way, there’s a whole lot of chocolate to choose from. So before you go out splurging, there are a few facts to help you know what’s what.

Like this one: Did you know that chocolate is a fermented food?

Chocolate is made of cacao beans, which grow on cacao trees. The trees bear oval fruits (cacao bean pods) that are 5-12 inches long. Each pod holds 30-50 seeds – aka cacao beans.

Know what's what Chocolate

Cacao vs. cocoa

“Cacao” (pronounce with Spanish pronunciation, or KA-KA-OH) beans are harvested and then fermented in large wooden crates for 2-9 days. This is where the flavor develops.

After they’re then dried and roasted (more flavor development), we call them “cocoa” beans.

Cacao

The process

Of course, different chocolate makers will use different equipment and varied processes. The gist: Once the skins of the beans are removed, they’re broken up into cocoa nibs. From here, the nibs can be ground under a heavy stone, separating colorless cocoa butter from cocoa liquor, and the liquor is refined and turned into chocolate. Or, high pressure will transform cocoa liquor into cocoa powder and cocoa butter.

cocoa beans

Different chocolates for different chocoholics

Quality chocolate is a mood-boosting food full of antioxidants. But the benefits (and richer flavors) come from the cocoa – not the sugar, milk fat or additives present in many chocolate bars. Here’s what to look at when comparing brands.

When looking at the percentage on many chocolate labels, note that higher percentages don’t necessarily mean the chocolate will be more bitter.

The percentage refers to the percentage of the weight of the cacao bean (both the cocoa and the cocoa butter) with respect to the whole list of ingredients.
The chocolatey flavor comes from the cocoa – not the cocoa butter.

So, not all 85% dark chocolates are the same. This is good news for explorers and chocolate lovers alike.

chocolates

Other considerations

When shopping around for different chocolates, you’ll notice other certifications and factors that distinguish one from the other – organic, fair trade, ethically sourced, to name a few. Alter Eco is one of my personal favorites, both because of the flavor and texture of their dark chocolate and because of their commitment to sustainability.

“Single origin” refers to the farm or country that grew the beans – Choosing single origin beans chocolates is a fun way to explore the variety of cocoa beans growing in different parts of the world.

On a final note, price can be a significant factor, as of course there’s a big difference between $7 on a bar of chocolate and $2 on a big bag of fun size treats. Two considerations here: Chocolate making is not only a form of art, but also the livelihood of many farmers and artisans around the world. Consider all that went into a single bar of chocolate, from planting to harvesting to fermenting, drying and processing.

Secondly, while splurging on chocolate is often just that – a splurge – you might discover that higher quality (more expensive) chocolate has a more satisfying flavor and feels more nourishing to the body – and so lasts longer than sweet chocolate candies. Compare your experiences as you discover the world of chocolate, and you may be surprised by how your preferences transform.

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Know what’s what: Eggs

So many options await in the egg section – with a price range to prove it. If you’ve ever explored different brands of eggs, you know that the taste of eggs can vary greatly, too. See for yourself by cracking open eggs from different farms/certifications: The color of the yolks ranges from pale yellow to rich, vibrant orange.

Sadly, the labels present on egg cartons give consumers are misleading and offer little insight as to how the laying chickens (layers) are raised.

Skip to the printable quick guide, Know what’s what: Eggs

For sure, knowing what labels do mean is a start.

Whether it’s better flavor or animal welfare you’re concerned with, understanding egg labels can help you make smarter purchases. And of course, every purchase is a vote of support for that producer to keep on keepin’ on.

In terms of the quality of egg you’re likely to get from each category, we’ll go loosely from lowest to highest. But first, the labels that hardly mean anything at all.

*Many delicious eggs laid by humanely raised hens can bear these ‘lower quality’ labels along with ‘higher quality’ ones.

**One more disclaimer: This list is not exhaustive. Certifications cost money, and there are lots of them. Small local farms may not offer any certifications at all. The best way to determine which company/farm you’ll support with your dollar is by doing a bit of research on the particular eggs available to you.

“Next!”

These labels alone have little to no meaning:

NATURAL

A gimmick! This label doesn’t actually mean anything. All eggs are “natural”, and the FDA has not defined “natural”, so this word can appear on any carton.

HORMONE-FREE

Another marketing gimmick, as U.S. federal law prohibits laying hens from being fed hormones. Hence, all eggs are free from added hormones.

UNITED EGG PRODUCERS CERTIFIED

United Egg Producers offers vague explanations of what their certification actually means. Find a lengthy overview of UEP guidelines here. According to takepart, the certification “basically means they’re supermarket eggs… laid by hens kept in tiny cages”.

Know what's what Eggs

“Okay, but what about…?”

These labels don’t tell the whole story and alone might identify lower quality eggs:

VEGETARIAN-FED/VEGETARIAN

This qualification prohibits animal byproducts in feed.

OMEGA-3 ENRICHED

This label identifies hens whose feed is rich in Omega-3. Allows cages.

ANTIBIOTIC-FREE/RAISED WITHOUT ANTIBIOTICS

This qualification prohibits the use of antibiotics in feed or water during growth period or while hens are laying.

CAGE-FREE

Sounds good, but this label is one of the trickiest. Cage-free hens might still spend their whole lives indoors with little space to move, as cage-free chickens can still be crammed closely together. The qualification doesn’t regulate their feed or antibiotic use.

AMERICAN HUMANE CERTIFIED

Certification permits the use of cages for egg-laying hens but includes producers of cage-free hens. Prohibits forced molting (starvation).

Know what's what Eggs

“Best bet for quality”

Find these labels, and there’s a good chance you’re getting tastier eggs from well-treated chickens

FREE-RANGE/FREE-ROAMING*

*Proceed with caution. Ideally, free-range chickens are well-treated with plenty of access to natural light, as the certification prohibits cages and requires access to outdoors. Unfortunately, a concrete slab would count as “outdoors”.

CERTIFIED HUMANE

Prohibits cages and animal byproducts in feed. Requires space for chickens to roam and perform natural behaviors. The certification comes from the nonprofit organization Humane Farm Animal Care (HFAC), “dedicated to improving the lives of farm animals in food production from birth through slaughter.” Their certifications are comprehensive and they make a point to publicize their standards, which gives consumers better assurance of their motives.

ANIMAL WELFARE APPROVED

This label is meant to certify a farmer’s commitment to their animals, land and community, and approved farms are visited personally by Animal Welfare Approved (AWA) every year. Flock sizes are limited to 500 hens, and AWA standards require outdoor ranging and foraging access, and prohibits animal byproduct in feed, forced molting and beak cutting.

CERTIFIED ORGANIC

Prohibits cages and antibiotics, and requires both access to outdoors and organic feed.

FOOD ALLIANCE CERTIFIED

Food Alliance aims to go “beyond organic“, taking on a more comprehensive approach to agriculture and certification, addressing concerns for labor, animal welfare, and the environment, requiring a continual improvement of practices over time. Eggs are from cage-free hens with room to roam and access to natural light, and the certification also prohibits forced molting (starvation).

PASTURE-RAISED/PASTURED

You’ll find different standards for various pasture certifications, but all-in-all, pasture-raised hens are able to hunt, peck and graze outdoors.

From certifiedhumane.org – “These ladies are given at least 108 square feet each and consume some feed and lots of grass, bugs, worms and anything else they can find in the dirt. They tend to be let out of the barns early in the morning and called back in before nightfall.” Various research shows pastured eggs are often more healthful.

Know what's what Eggs

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Know what's what Eggs

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A landscape of food today

landscape food

A peach grower who fell into organic farming before it was cool is teaching his daughter everything he knows.

A group of old farmers and eager newbies circle ’round one humble fruit grower after another, tuning in as they recount their experiences and share their knowledge, prefacing every so often: “Now, I’m no expert on anything…”

Migrant workers and Spanish-speaking farmers gather at sunrise to assess the day’s work, each determined to make strides and work swiftly until dinner.

Habits form, muscles remember, ears and minds open and process and tire.

Connections are made.

Chefs bow down to the freshest ingredients and get creative.

Chickens roam.

People follow the source.

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