Globally, cheesemakers produce an uncountable number of distinct cheeses. Yet, across the diverse range of flavors, aromas, shapes and sizes, the one constant is milk. One easy way to approach the, sometimes complicated, world of cheese is to organize it by milk type. Cow, sheep and goat milk are the basis for most cheese (except the renowned mozzarella di buffalo and somewhat less renowned soy cheese).
The flavor of cheeses made from these milks can vary greatly depending on the specific breed of the animal, how well the milk is handled, the style of cheese, how well the cheese is handled and the cheese’s ripeness. These descriptions will prime you for what to expect.
Cows produce more milk by volume than sheep or goats. This is why many of the largest wheels of cheeses are made from cow milk, such as Parmigiano-Reggiano, Comte and most Cheddar. In general, cow milk has a sweet yet clean flavor, and of the three milks, cow is most able to absorb and develop the intended flavor profile without asserting its own inherent traits. While there is plenty of variance depending on the breed, cow milk contains more fat than goat milk, yet less fat than sheep milk.
Goats produce more milk by volume than sheep, but less than cows. Many goat cheeses are small, delicate and carefully made morsels, such as Crottin de Chavignol, Caprino, and Wabash Cannonball. In general, goat milk is tangy and herbaceous. Both of these flavors are typically inherent in all goat cheeses – fresh or aged. Goat milk has an undeserved reputation for what is often described as a pronounced “goaty flavor”- this is the result of mishandled milk or an unclean milking parlor rather than a characteristic flavor of goat milk. Goat milk has the lowest fat content when compared to cow and sheep milk and is the easiest on the human digestive system.
Sheep produce less milk by volume than goats or cows. Many sheep milk cheeses are formed into wheels in the middle of the size spectrum, such as Abbay du Belloc, Pecorino Ginepro and Vermont Shepherd. In general, sheep milk is sweet and nutty and has a distinct flavor characteristic often described as wooly. Sheep milk has a higher fat content than either cow or goat milk.