When you're from Wisconsin, it's easy to take milk for granted. It's part of the landscape. Goes well with chocolate chip cookies, peanut butter sandwiches and blindingly hot Salvadoran peppers. In the grocery store, most of us grab a carton of our regular, whether whole, 2%, 1% or skim, and beyond that we probably don't have much of a handle on how different milks actually taste.
When I kicked around the idea of doing a milk taste test, my prospective panel members had responses that ranged from flip ("I don't even know what the milk I drink now tastes like") to overconfident ("Sure, I can tell whole milk from 2%. Whole tastes like cream, man, like I'm drinking cream" and "I can pick skim out of any lineup. That's just obvious").
"But can you tell the difference between organic 2% and regular whole milk?" I asked. The furrowed brows convinced me that a double-blind taste test - as you would do with wine - was in order.
Tasters got a list of the milk varieties represented with details first, so they had something to glom on to; then, after each sample, tasters tried to identify the milk. A chef, a foodie and an average eater joined me on the mission.
First up: Off-the-shelf Dean's 2%, as sort of a control. We were all nonplussed. "Flat," the notes say. "Tastes like, well, milk."
The organic 2% from Trader Joe's was something else, though, described as carrying a "long, balanced aftertaste." It reminded the chef of "light cream." Organic milk is different - defined by the USDA as derived from animals that have only eaten organic feed, have never been treated with synthetic hormones or a set class of medications, and are "held in pens with adequate space." I suppose none of us should have been surprised that these factors affected its taste.
The Swiss Valley organic 1% we tried was "light," and called "smooth, robust" (by the foodie) and "intense." But no one identified it correctly. We also had trouble distinguishing Organic Valley organic 2% from Swiss Valley organic 2%. No one worried about this after we tabulated the results, though - like confusing two Willamette Valley Pinot Grigios.
Everyone identified the Sassy Cow organic skim milk correctly. It was decidedly more complex than your run-of-the-mill skim. We judged the Sassy to be "clearly skim, but not so thin-tasting," packing a "slight but pleasant chalk" taste, "alkaline," "austere" and "well balanced." The Trader Joe's whole vitamin D also stood out (tastes like cream, man).
Somewhat unexpectedly, we also reached consensus on goat milk, which didn't taste at all goat-y. We couldn't find a local supplier, so tried the Meyenberg ultra-pasteurized vitamin D, finding it "dense, rich," "powerful," "nearly as rich as cream," "nutty" and "full of flavor." Tastes great, and goat milk has lower impact on the environment than cow's milk as the animals need less space to graze. It also has a higher fat content of a different kind (supposedly more digestible), with lower lactose and higher calcium, niacin and potassium ratios.
Our favorites were from Organic Valley, a national cooperative working with local dairy farms to get their product into local grocery stores; Sassy Cow of Columbus, a dairy farm that also produces cream and cheese; and Meyenberg, a family of Swiss immigrants who have been milking goats for more than 100 years. We left the tasting session with newfound respect for milk and a small sense of wonder that so many taste opportunities abound inside a world that we all thought we knew well.