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All About Sheep’s-Milk Cheese
From Croatia and France to Tennessee, you can find an eclectic array of cheeses made with nutty, sweet sheep’s milk.
Published Apr. 14, 2023.
What You Need To Know
Many people think they’ve never had sheep’s-milk cheese before only to discover that they’re already big fans of it. Spain’s famed Manchego must be made with sheep’s milk, as must Rome’s delightfully salty and tangy Pecorino Romano. Traditional feta and halloumi are made with sheep’s milk (or a combination of sheep’s and goat’s milk). In France, sheep’s milk is essential to the flavor of authentic Roquefort.
We’ve written about those iconic sheep’s-milk cheeses before and we cook with them regularly, but they’re just a small sampling of what you can find. We’re focusing our attention on other exceptional cheeses around the world and in the United States.
What Makes Sheep’s Milk Special
The science of cheesemaking is complex, but it’s fundamentally an attempt to remove moisture and manipulate the milk’s solids. The unique composition of sheep’s milk makes it well suited for cheese. It contains roughly twice the fat and protein of cow’s milk and goat’s milk. Because there’s less moisture to get rid of, the yield per gallon of milk is higher. As with all things, more fat means more richness. It also means greater potential for flavor. Cheesemakers describe sheep’s milk as having a grassy sweetness and nuttiness that results in full-flavored cheese. But if that milk is mishandled, says Dean Sommer of the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Center for Dairy Research, the fat is prone to developing off-flavors, going from pleasantly “sheepy” to undesirably “gamey.”
Why Aren’t More Sheep’s-Milk Cheeses Made in America?
In the United States, the sheep industry is a drop in the dairy bucket. Recent annual data show some 13 billion pounds of cow’s-milk cheese produced—compared to just 450,000 pounds of sheep’s-milk cheese. Why? Dairy cattle farming is simply much more entrenched in America. While dairy-farm cows produce milk year-round, sheep are typically milked for about six months a year, starting in late winter when the lambs are born. In addition “the genetics available for dairy sheep in the U.S. is very limited compared to Europe,” says Sommer. “Our dairy sheep don’t produce as much milk per animal here.”
Things are starting to change, with experts such as Mariana Marques de Almeida, an animal scientist and cheese specialist, leading the charge. In 2015, she established Ms. J and Co., a Wisconsin-based company dedicated to advancing sheep and goat dairying. After several decades of closed borders, she explained, it’s now possible to access high-yielding sheep genetics from Europe. Additionally, she and other breeding specialists are experimenting with ways to extend the milking season. By exposing a portion ...
Everything We Tested
Like fresh cheese made with goat’s milk, this chèvre look-alike is light, airy, and spreadable. We love its “subtle vegetal flavor”—several tasters were reminded of cucumber—and gentle brightness. Founded in 1986 in Petaluma, California, the company also makes sheep’s-milk ricotta, which is traditional but something of a rarity in the United States.
This beautiful 1-pound wheel is crumbly at the center and gooey around the exterior, with a dark line of ash running through the center and a downy white rind encasing it all. The “citrusy” cheese becomes punchier and more complex as it ages. Nestled near the Smoky Mountains in Walland, the farm dates back to the 1930s. It became an inn in the 1970s, and cheesemaking has been part of the company’s focus since the early 2000s.
This petite bloomy rind cheese is “grassy and verdant” with notes of “earth,” yet also “creamy and buttery.” As it ripens, it gets creamy from the outside in and will eventually become soft all the way to the center. It’s one of a large selection of cheeses made at Green Dirt Farm, a sustainable dairy farm and creamery in Weston, Missouri, that former physician Sarah Hoffman founded with her husband and three children in 2002.
Annatto gives this French cheese—which translates to “red sheep”—its striking orange exterior but is used in small quantities so that it doesn’t affect flavor. The rind is mild and the cheese is exceptionally creamy. With a lush texture and salty-sweet flavor complemented by “all the right barnyard in all the right places,” it’s a standout.
This short, roughly 8-ounce wheel has a downy white rind and a delicious interior with varied textures. At the center, it can be a bit chalky. Near the edges, the cheese is soft and stretchy. It is “slightly citrusy” and has a pleasantly sheepy flavor that becomes more robust with age. Founded in 1990 in the town of Warrensburg in the Adirondacks, Nettle Meadow has a sanctuary farm (currently home to more than 100 animals) in addition to a cheesemaking operation.
Just 2½ inches in diameter, this petite round is “extremely buttery” and has a richness reminiscent of “heavy cream” and even “whipped butter.” Although it’s rich, it’s balanced by “bright,” “citrusy,” “grassy” notes—plus a pleasant amount of salt—and becomes increasingly savory with age. It’s firmer in the center and gooey at the edges with a mild, downy white rind. Located in the Hudson Valley, Old Chatham Creamery was established in 1993, when sheep dairies were even rarer in the United States than they are today.
This raw-milk Portuguese cheese can be served by slicing off the top and scooping out the center with a knife or spoon. The cheese is soft, spreadable, and lush but becomes firmer and sliceable with time. The flavor of the grasses that the sheep graze on really comes through; the cheese is “fruity,” “winey,” and tastes of “hay/barnyard.” The full-flavored, silky-smooth cheese is fondue-like. Named for the highest mountain ranges in Portugal, Serra da Estrela dates back to the 12th century and is made with thistle rennet.
At about 1⅓ pounds on average, this washed rind cheese from western Spain is big and very special. The slightly tacky rind encases a gooey cheese with a distinct funkiness and notes of “mushroom” and “brandy” that’s not for the timid. It’s known for “tang” and unique complexity that develops a slightly bitter edge as it ages. More assertive in flavor than Serra da Estrela, it’s also made with thistle rennet and can be served by slicing off the top and scooping out the center. It draws its name from the city of Casar de Cáceres, located in the Extremadura region in the western part of Spain.
Made in Holland for California-based Cypress Grove Cheese, this sheep’s milk gouda-style cheese is a crowd pleaser. Although it’s firm and “a tiny bit crystallized,” “there’s a real creaminess to it.” It’s full-flavored, with “milky sweetness” and “sweet caramel notes” balanced beautifully by “grassy” notes and a “mild salinity.”
This firm, sliceable cheese has “nice acidity and depth.” It’s rich in flavor—”nutty” and “sharp” with “complexity that builds.” The pleasant earthy mustiness near the rind brings to mind “grassy springtime” aromas. For all that nuance, this cheese is still very approachable. The first cheese Jodi Ohlsen Read made when she started Nerstrand, Minnesota-based Shepherd’s Way Farms in 1998, it remains a favorite.
With “caramelized sweetness” that tastes “a little more grassy than barnyard,” the flavor of the raw sheep’s milk used to make this cheese really comes through. It tastes of “toasted hazelnuts” and has a pleasantly tangy finish. The firm, sliceable, smooth cheese is reminiscent of the Basque cheeses that inspired it. It’s made in southeastern Vermont during the summer months, when the sheep are able to eat wild herbs and grasses, adding unique flavor to their milk.
You can taste the full-flavored milk used to make this cheese. It’s “grassy and vegetal”—pleasantly reminiscent of “soil and minerals”—and balanced by salinity and “a little fruity” flavor. This cheese is firm yet quite creamy. Named for the company’s two founders (both named Anna) and the Basque cheeses that inspired it, this cheese has been made about 30 minutes outside of Madison, Wisconsin, since 2014.
“Very nutty” with “just a touch of sheep funk,” this intense and nuanced cheese is always popular. Its “mellow aged sweetness” is lovely, as is its “buttery” smooth texture. With time, it may develop earthy complexity, especially near the rind. The milk used to make Ossau-Irraty comes from local breeds in the Béarn and Basque Country of France; it’s part of a cheesemaking tradition in the Pyrenees that dates back to at least the 15th century.
Idiazábal can be smoked or not; we sampled the smoked version. It’s “nutty” and “tangy” and both smells and tastes “bacony” and “savory.” If you like smoked cheeses, you'll be pleased that this has “pleasant smoke” flavor that’s “not bitter or acrid.” The cheese is smooth, dense, and very easy to slice, as much like smoked gouda as its cousin Manchego. It’s made in Basque country and the Navarre area of northern Spain using raw milk from the Latxa and Carranzana breeds of sheep.
This smoked cheese is a subdesignation of Pecorino Sardo, the Sardinian cousin of Rome’s famous Pecorino Romano. Like that more widely known cheese, it’s dry, crumbly, “piquant,” and delightfully salty. It’s somehow “both caramel-y and fresh and grassy” and offers a “nice punch of smoke” that’s “really incredible.” Eat it plain or grate it over pasta for a unique salty-tangy-smoky finish. Fiore Sardo is traditionally made using milk from sheep that have grazed on wild herbs and vegetation and is air-dried near a brazier for two weeks.
One of the most popular cheeses in Greece, it’s served as a table cheese but is also used frequently for cooking, including in grilled cheese–like sandwiches called toastaki. We tasted Mevgal Kasseri, which is aged for 3 to 4 months and is as mild and meltable as mozzarella or young provolone. We noticed a slight, pleasant tang. Older versions will develop complexity. Although it's traditionally made entirely with sheep's milk (that's how Mevgal makes its Kasseri), some versions include up to 20 percent goat’s milk or cow’s milk.
This firm cheese boasts “slight grassiness,” “subtle nuttiness,” and “tartness on the finish.” It’s easy to slice and can be served simply or drizzled with olive oil. The cheese is made on Pag, a small island in the Adriatic Sea. The island is known for a wealth of aromatic herbs and is swept by the salty breeze of the Adriatic.
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The mission of America’s Test Kitchen Reviews is to find the best equipment and ingredients for the home cook through rigorous, hands-on testing.
Kate is a deputy editor for ATK Reviews. She's a culinary school graduate and former line cook and cheesemonger.