Nothing makes a dinner party seem more fancy than some nice wine and an overflowing cheese board with cheddar, brie, and Gruyère. But when you’re going to load up your tiny plate, is there really a difference in quality between those pasteurized and unpasteurized varieties?
In short, it’s up to your personal taste buds. Unpasteurized cheeses tend to be softer, richer, more aromatic and complex, while pasteurized cheeses range from semi-soft to hard with just as many variations in flavor and smell. Both of these categories have delicious cheeses that can suit just about anyone’s personal preferences.
So with more than 1,800 different types of cheeses out there, what is the difference between unpasteurized and pasteurized cheese, and what’s the big deal over the addition of just two letters?
Why Does Cheese Made with Raw Milk Seem to Taste Better?
Many argue that, because the milk in unpasteurized cheese, or raw-milk cheese, has not gone through an intense heating process, the cheese is able to retain more of its superior, complex flavors and textures that come from the raw milk.
More specifically, the bacteria in the raw milk are impacted by the quality of what the cows themselves eat, such as grass or grain, which in turn impacts the flavor, texture, and aroma of the cheeses it goes into. Even factors such as climate and temperature can affect the microorganisms in the raw milk. Because of this, many say that such cheeses, which are often made on a small-scale, can taste like place they come from, even down to the very farm.
Unfortunately, the pasteurization process, especially with high-temperatures, which is meant to destroy harmful bacteria and standardize milk production on a large scale, often ends up removing the bacteria that affects flavor and texture as well.
Other factors to consider when thinking about taste are: how it’s made, where it’s made, who’s making it, where is the milk coming from, and how skilled the cheesemaker is. These can all impact the flavor of both pasteurized and unpasteurized cheese.
At the end of the day, whether you go with pasteurized or unpasteurized, it all depends on whether you like your cheeses soft or hard (or somewhere in between), how smelly you like your cheese to be (in the good way), and how strong you like the flavor to be. No matter what combination of textures, flavor, and aroma you’re looking for, chances are there’s a cheese out there for you.
What Is Unpasteurized Cheese?
Unpasteurized cheese is made from milk that has not gone under the pasteurization process. Pasteurization occurs when milk is heated to destroy bacteria which can cause illness and faster spoilage, and in 1949, it became federally mandated that all milk products had to be pasteurized due to public health concerns.
However, under the same regulation, if an unpasteurized cheese has been aged for at least 60 days—that is, left to ripen—the chemical reactions that took place over the course of the aging is believed to kill off any harmful bacteria that may have been present and can then be sold.
How Is Milk Pasteurized?
To make pasteurized cheese, milk is heated to a temperature of about 145°F for 30 minutes, or to a temperature of 162°F for 15 seconds—the higher the temperature, the lower the holding time. This heating process is what destroys the illness-causing bacteria and helps to prolong the shelf-life of the milk, and therefore, the cheese.
How Does Heat-Treated Cheese Differ?
Heat-treated cheese is considered to be the happy medium. The milk for this kind of cheese is heated to about 131°F for about 15 seconds. This is considered a high enough temperature to destroy any potentially harmful bacteria but not high enough to destroy the complex flavors associated with unpasteurized cheese.
Unfortunately, you’ll still have to wait 60 days before you can get your hands on any heat-treated cheese once it’s made since it’s technically unpasteurized and must meet the federal requirement of being aged for at least 60 days.
Does Unpasteurized Cheese Spoil Quicker?
Unfortunately, yes. Most unpasteurized cheeses are also soft cheeses, which means more moisture, which means mold is much more likely to grow at a faster rate. For these, there is maybe a 1-2 week grace period after the expiration date, but to stay on the safe side, pay attention to your cheese when you first purchase it, so you can become familiar with the smell and texture. Once it veers away from normal, it’s time to say goodbye.
There are some exceptions, of course. Some unpasteurized cheeses, such as Parmesan, are hard and have less moisture, which means it will last a little bit longer. If stored correctly, these can last a while, and if mold starts to grow, you can cut off the moldy part and carry on with your cheesy adventures. However, as with the soft cheeses, make sure you learn what’s normal, so once it changes too much, you can know to throw it out.
Where Can You Buy Unpasteurized Cheese?
Unpasteurized cheeses are common and popular all over Europe, easily found in most any shop that sells cheeses, and, technically, unpasteurized cheese that has met the aging requirements of 60 days can be purchased in the United States wherever you go for your usual cheese cravings—from your local grocery store or deli to specialty cheese shops to even online. Unfortunately, for the young, soft, unpasteurized cheeses, you’ll most likely have to cross some borders to our neighbors to the north in Quebec, Canada, or pick some up on your next European adventure.
Why Is Unpasteurized Cheese Illegal?
Unpasteurized cheese has been around for centuries, but in the early-to-mid-1900’s, outbreaks of illnesses were linked to the Listeria bacteria found in unpasteurized milk, and pregnant women, the elderly and those with compromised immune systems are particularly susceptible to these bacteria, so federal regulations were created in 1949 as a matter of public health safety, and regulations are still being revised within the last decade.
While the United States is strict on the kinds of cheeses you can have on your charcuterie board, it isn’t the only one. Australia and New Zealand have similar restrictions, and Scotland has banned raw-milk products altogether. However, many European countries such as France, Italy, and Switzerland continue to embrace the tradition of using raw milk for their coveted cheeses.
6 Raw Milk Cheeses to Try
- Brie: Brie is a well-known French dessert cheese with a texture that is buttery and soft-ripened. While the specific flavors depend on the ingredients added during the cheesemaking process, you can get a fruity, mild, nutty, or tangy flavor with a really strong aroma.
- Camembert: This French cheese tastes differently depending on its maturity. When it’s fresh, it can be a bit chalky and crumbly, but the more mature it gets, the softer and smoother it becomes. You can expect a creamy, buttery taste and earthy aromas. It goes great with a light red wine.
- Comté: This semi-hard fine French cheese can be grainy or smooth with a flavor ranging from fruity and sweet to nutty and smokey depending on where it is matured. It also melts easily, opening possibilities from fondues to the classic Croque Monsieur.
- Emmental: Emmental is a traditional hard Swiss cheese with walnut-sized holes. The flavor is fruity with a hint of acidity and the aroma is sweet with tones of fresh-cut hay. Pair this with your favorite glass of wine.
- Gruyère: Also from Switzerland, Gruyére is a hard cheese with a compact texture a little denser than Emmental. It is sweet and a little salty, and as it matures, it gains an earthy aroma. It pairs well with fruits, crackers, and bread.
- Parmesan: This Italian cheese is hard with a dense and grainy crystalline texture. Its flavors are both fruity and nutty as well as sharp with a strong aroma. It is most often grated over pastas and used in soups. Be careful about imitation Parmesan, however. Real Parmesan, known as Parmigiano Reggiano has to be produced from cows who grazed on fresh grass and hay. (Source)