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.
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.
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.”
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 ...
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Kate is a deputy editor for ATK Reviews. She's a culinary school graduate and former line cook and cheesemonger.