Pasteurized: The milk has been heated to a specific temperature for a specific time period to kill bacteria and keep it fresh longer. Most U.S. dairies heat milk to 161°F for 15 seconds, then immediately chill it. Compulsory pasteurization laws were introduced in Chicago in 1908, and now regulate much of the country’s milk supply.

Ultra-pasteurized: The milk has been heated to a minimum of 191°F for one second, then immediately chilled to keep it shelf-stable longer than milk treated through conventional pasteurization.

Homogenized: The milk has been spun in a centrifugal cream separator so that the fat globules that would otherwise separate out and rise to the top of the milk are evenly dispersed throughout.

Raw: Milk that has not been pasteurized or homogenized. Illegal in some states, raw milk is considered by its opponents to be a potentially dangerous delivery system of E. coli and other disease-causing pathogens normally killed by pasteurization. Its supporters maintain that risk of contamination is low if dairies follow strict sanitation procedures, and that beneficial bacterial, nutrients, and enzymes destroyed through pasteurization are nutritious and healthy for humans. Raw does not necessarily mean organic.

Evaporated: Milk that has had 60 percent of its water removed and is shelf-stable (that is, it can be sold on supermarket shelves without having to be refrigerated.) It can be reconstituted by adding water. If evaporated milk is sweetened, it’s known as condensed milk.

Organic: For a dairy to become certified as an organic dairy by the National Organic Standards Board of the USDA, its animals must have access to pasture, rather than being confined to indoor feedlots. Cows must also be fed food grown without chemical fertilizers or a host of other prohibited substances, and are not allowed to be treated with antibiotics or growth hormones. Milk is not considered organic until the cow producing it has been raised under organic rules for at least a year.

Americans have a touchy relationship with milk. Many people think they’re lactose intolerant. Others won’t drink it because they’re afraid it contains bovine growth hormone. Or that it’ll make them fat. In fact, U.S. consumption of milk has been steadily dropping since the mid 1980s—even taking into consideration the nearly corresponding increase in latte consumption during that same period. The dwindling number of people who are drinking milk are increasingly buying organic.

Similar fears surround beef. But there’s a difference: People discuss the taste differences between organic and grass-fed beef, conventional versus “sustainably raised.” How often have you heard arguments over the taste of pasteurized versus ultra-pasteurized milk, or homogenized organic versus raw?

CHOW conducted a double-blind taste test to see if we could identify major differences among milks and select our favorites. Our panel was made up of food editors and chefs from CHOW’s staff. Our guest taster was Nina Planck, founder of farmers’ markets around the country and author of the book Real Food: What to Eat and Why (Bloomsbury USA, 2006), which extols the alleged health benefits of raw milk. Our ten milk samples ranged from conventional (pasteurized, homogenized, non-organic) to niche (raw, organic, filtered through a cotton sock.) We shook up the non-homogenized milks before drinking. Except for one goat’s milk thrown in for kicks, all were cow’s milk and whole, because full-fat milk is the most flavorful. We evaluated the samples’ colors, aromas, flavors, textures, and degree of richness.

What did we find?

  • Organic tastes better than non-organic.
  • Non-homogenized milks were smoother, creamier, and overall more delicious than homogenized.
  • Ultra-pasteurized should probably be avoided, because the milk can taste “cooked.” That’s fine if you’re making rice pudding, but otherwise, we prefer fresher-tasting milk.
  • Raw milks are the most flavorful, but you have to be ready for them: If you prefer a neutral beverage that tastes almost like ice water, raw milk’s tangy, barnyardy, grassy notes may be off-putting.

1. Straus Family Creamery (pasteurized, non-homogenized, organic): Immediately recognizable as non-homogenized because of the flecks of yellowish cream suspended in watery white, this milk also had no distinct aroma, but its creamy texture, richness, and “summery,” “cake batter,” “sweet,” and “grassy” flavor got high marks with the tasters. Overall, it rated a 4.5 out of a possible 5 points.

2. Clover Organic (pasteurized, homogenized): Uniform ivory with no flecks, this milk had no real aroma to speak of, had an even texture, and struck the tasters as “straight-up,” “balanced,” “sweet,” and “familiar.” It received a 4.

3. Organic Pastures (raw, organic): Very creamy and yellow looking, this milk had a slightly sour aroma and the most distinct flavor. It was tangy and “rich,” “sort of like shrimp or shellfish,” and “barnyardy in a good way.” (Later we learned that the dairy does nothing to its milk other than filter it through a cotton sock prior to bottling.) One panelist was put off by the taste, because the startling flavorfulness reminded her of reconstituted dry milk. It had a beautifully creamy, smooth, and even texture. The panel gave it a 4.

4. Claravale Farm (raw, non-organic): Yellowish and sweet smelling, this milk had an earthy taste that some panelists agreed was “fresh” but one found “plastery.” The tasters united in their appreciation of this milk’s texture, which was “silky,” “velvety,” and “thinner, but pleasantly so.” It received at 3.5.

5. Lucerne Vitamin D enriched (pasteurized, homogenized, non-organic): Solid white, with no aroma to speak of and a “good and basic,” “subtle,” and “neutral” taste, this milk reminded many of the tasters of what they had grown up with. For those who preferred the stronger-tasting milks, this was a bad thing. Others liked it best. Ultimately it ranked a 3.

6. Trader Joe’s Organic Cream Top (ultra-pasteurized, non-homogenized): The milk was chunky with bits of cream and a vanilla hue. Although this milk, like the Stremicks, was ultra-pasteurized, none of the tasters picked up “cooked” notes. They agreed it was neutral tasting with a creamy consistency, and reminded everyone of the Straus milk. (Turns out Straus is rumored to be the dairy that supplies Trader Joe’s with this product. Reps from both companies refused to comment on the speculations.) The panel gave it a 3.

7. Stremicks Heritage Foods Organic (ultra pasteurized, homogenized): This very white milk was the only one that had bubbles in it, and smelled intensely “custardy,” “cooked,” and “sweet.” The taste was similar: cooked and custardy, with one panelist commenting that it also tasted “flat.” Although it had a rich consistency, the panel agreed its overall impression was that of “factory milk.” Stremicks received a 2.5.

8. Summerhill Dairy goat’s milk (pasteurized, non-homogenized, non-organic): The milk looked rheumy and white with a green tinge. Most of the tasters recognized it immediately from its barnyard smell and salty flavor as goat’s milk. One taster noticed a “cooked” flavor possibly due to pasteurization. It seemed unfair to compare it with the cow’s milk; it is, after all, from a whole different animal. Nevertheless, we gave it a 2.5.

9. Clover conventional (pasteurized, homogenized, non-organic): Pale and thick looking, this milk had no aroma and was ranked next to last by the tasters. Comments on flavor included “chemically flat,” “dull,” “refrigerated,” and “like a plastic cup.” Its consistency was “thin” and “watered-down.” It got a score of 1.5.

10. Nestlé Carnation Evaporated (pasteurized, homogenized, non-organic): The milk was nearly beige in color, with an aroma of popcorn; the panel found its texture thick and viscous, its taste “rancid” and “abrasive.” Few could drink any beyond a tiny sip. It received a no-score.

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