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A Culinary History Of 'Milk Through The Ages'
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A Culinary History Of 'Milk Through The Ages'

TERRY GROSS, host:

Milk is our first food after we arrive in this world. How we started drinking the milk of other species, like cows and goats, and how people around the world started making milk into cheese and yogurt, is the subject of the new book, "Milk" by Anne Mendelson. The book includes recipes and a lot of information about how milk in America is processed today.

You know, those of us who are used to just drinking, you know, the kind of milk that you get in the supermarket, don't think of milk as being a very complex taste or a very varied taste. It's like, it's milk. You describe, like, fresh milk that you've had, you know, that hasn't - well, I'm going to ask you to describe the best milk that you've had, where it came from, how processed it was, and how it compare us to what most of us are familiar with.

Ms. ANNE MENDELSON (Culinary Historian; Author, "Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk through the Ages"): The best milk I've tasted and, well, I don't think I can pick one brand or one source because I've been lucky enough to taste good milk in many different places. But what all of the good, really good samples had in common is that first of all they were very, very fresh. Second, they had not been homogenized. So, you still had a skim milk layer and a cream milk layer which you mix together yourself.

When you drink it, you can taste the contrast between the richness of the cream and the comparative leanness of the skim milk. It just registers in a very wonderful way in your mouth as you taste it. And it's hard to describe the flavor. It's just freshness, freshness, freshness. It's bland, but it's a good kind of bland.

No matter what the source of the milk the pasteurized, homogenized milk that most of us get, has really been processed to a fare-thee-well. The good stuff - well, it's unhomogenized, but it's also been pasteurized at a lower temperature for a longer time, 145 degrees for about half an hour. This results in milk that's just closer to the original make up of the milk as it came out of the cow. And that's what I call really, really good milk.

GROSS: What do you look for on the label of milk before you buy it?

Ms. MENDELSON: Unhomogenized. That's the main thing. If it says that it was batch pasteurized instead of just pasteurized, that's a plus.

GROSS: What does that mean, batch pasteurized?

Ms. MENDELSON: Batch pasteurized means that it was run in batches into an actual vat and heated to a temperature of 145 degrees, that is for 30 minutes. After the 30 minutes, it's pumped out again into another tank and filled into bottles or cartons.

Most of the milk that you get that does not say vat pasteurized. You can assumed that it was pasteurized in another kind of system, a continuous feed pipeline where the milk starts out at the beginning, goes through an immense labyrinth of pipes and valves, and is pasteurized at a temperature of 161 degrees, I believe, for about 15 seconds - much shorter time. That step tends to be not cost-effective from the point of view of any dairy that's dealing in huge, huge volumes of milk. So, batch pasteurization is done only by small dairies that really care what they're doing.

GROSS: So, it preserves more of the flavor, the batch pasteurization?

Ms. MENDELSON: Yes.

GROSS: So, when you get unhomogenized milk do you have to stir it or shake it yourself?

Ms. MENDELSON: Well, the thing about unhomogenized milk is that when you get a batch, let's say you get a gallon, you have all kinds of possibilities. You can skim off the cream, you can use it as cream. You can stir the cream into the milk and drink it that way, which is, I think, delicious.

You can take the skim milk by itself and turn it into a very good fresh cheese. You can produce unhomogenized yogurt with a lovely layer of cream on top. Unhomogenized milk is incredibly versatile and all its versatility is just wiped out when the milk is homogenized.

GROSS: How come the shelf life of milk is considerably longer than it used to be?

Ms. MENDELSON: Higher pasteurization temperature. These - these systems keep being refined. There is routine high temperature, short time pasteurization. The milk goes - the milk is pumped straight into the containers without exposure to the air, without exposure to anything after pasteurization.

There is ultra pasteurization, still higher temperature, still shorter time, that lasts even longer. It has a very long shelf life. Basically, a lot of the things in milk that would be interesting to any bacterium in its right mind, have been destroyed in the processing.

GROSS: My guest is Anne Mendelson, author of the book "Milk." We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Anne Mendelson. She is a culinary historian and her new book is called "Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk through the Ages."

You write in your book that when shopping for milk you don't buy milk just because it says organic on it. Unless there's something else to recommend the milk, the organic label isn't sufficient for you. Why not?

Ms. MENDELSON: Organic is a word that doesn't have always the meanings that people want it to have. It doesn't imply that the milk came from a contented cow in the pasture. It doesn't imply that the milk started out really high quality. It doesn't imply that the milk was treated with tender loving care the way it might be by an artisanal dairy.

All that means is that what the animal was fed was organically raised, and it does not, by any means, imply that the animal is getting a diet suitable for a ruminant. A ruminant is a, I hope must people know, is an animal with a rumin, a certain kind of stomach chamber in which there are trillions of bacterias that do the work of digesting the cellulose, the fiber in grass and hays that the animal eats - cows, sheep. These are both ruminants. Goats are ruminants, water buffaloes are ruminants.

GROSS: So, cows are really designed to eat grass and hay, but in the big industrial animal lots cows are usually fed corn or corn and soy. So, - and I think what you're saying, even if it says organic milk, it might mean that the cow is fed organic corn as opposed to the kind of grass and hay that cows' stomachs are designed to digest. So, is the milk in a taste different if the cow is fed corn or soy than it's going to taste if the cow is fed what it's designed to eat - grass and hay?

Ms. MENDELSON: Yes it will be. It will taste different. Basically it probably is going to be thinner. The cow is probably going to give more milk, but milk that is less concentrated in protein and minerals and butter fat, and all the other things that make milk taste like milk.

There are limits to how much corn and soy beans you can feed a cow. I think it would kill any cow to be on a diet totally of corn and soy beans. So, the trick is to see, I'm not making this up, the trick is literally to see how great a proportion of corn or soy you can introduce to the rations without making the cow actively sick.

GROSS: Do you have to limit your dairy intake because of lactose intolerance or cholesterol? Or do you just eat as much as butter and cheese and yogurt as you please?

Ms. MENDELSON: Basically I eat as much butter and cheese and yogurt as I please. I don't have lactose intolerance, but I almost never drink milk. If I can get really great milk, well, that's different. But I don't have the milk-drinking habit. I just like it better when it's turned into cultured buttermilk. I love buttermilk.

I love yogurt, thin it a little with water and drink it like a beverage. To me, that's when milk really develops depth and dimension and flavor, flavor that can fortify a person. When the lactose is partly turned into lactic acid, when you have this lightly soured product that has that refreshing lactic acid tang, there is nothing more marvelous on a hot summer day.

GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Ms. MENDELSON: Thank you for having me.

GROSS: Anne Mendelson is the author of "Milk: The Surprising Story of Milk through the Ages." You can find a recipe from her book for apple onion cream soup on our Web site freshair.npr.org, where you can also download podcasts of our show.

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