Sheepmilk cheeses like feta are growing rapidly in popularity. As consumers discover the unique, tangy flavors of cheeses like feta, they are seeking out new varieties made from sheep’s milk. The rich taste and texture make sheep milk an ideal choice for exceptional artisanal cheeses. Small dairy sheep farms are cropping up to meet demand, crafting high-quality raw milk cheeses from ewes that make their products stand out. From brined feta to aged pecorino, sheep milk adds a complexity that cheese lovers just can’t get enough of. This article will explore the sheep milk cheese phenomenon.

The Growing Popularity of Sheep Milk Cheeses

Sheep milk cheeses like feta, pecorino, and ricotta are growing in popularity for their unique, tangy flavors. The rich taste and creamy texture make sheep milk ideal for exceptional cheeses. With nearly twice the solids of cow or goat milk, sheep milk curds yield more cheese per gallon.

The high fat and protein allow intense flavors to develop when aged. This gives aged sheep milk cheeses like pecorino a delightful nuttiness and boldness. Coupled with the artisanal food movement, there’s been a boom in small sheep dairies. These farmstead creameries use milk from their own ewes to craft high-quality, localized cheeses.

Sheep Milk Qualities That Make Great Cheese

Sheep milk has several unique qualities that make it excellent for crafting flavorful, artisanal cheeses:

Higher Solids

Sheep milk contains nearly twice the amount of solids as cow or goat milk. This rich concentration means more cheese yield per gallon of milk and intensifies flavors. The higher protein and fat content keeps more moisture in the cheese, resulting in superior texture.

More Fatty Acids

The fat in sheep milk has higher levels of short-chain fatty acids. These are broken down by cheese cultures and released as flavors. More fatty acids equal more flavor compounds for tasty, complex cheeses.

Better Protein Composition

Sheep casein proteins are more easily coagulated by Rennet and better retain fat and moisture. This makes sheep milk easier to work with and produces better curd sets. The higher protein also aids flavor development in aged cheeses.

With benefits like higher yield, better texture, more pronounced flavors, and easier coagulation, it’s evident why artisan cheesemakers seek out sheep milk. When skillfully crafted, these qualities shine through beautifully.

The Unique Taste of Ewes’ Milk Cheeses

The flavors that develop in sheep milk cheeses set them apart from other cheeses. The abundant fatty acids break down into a diverse range of taste compounds that deliver incredibly complex flavors. Notes of brown butter, grass, nuts, caramel, fruit, mushrooms, and more can come through—sometimes all in the same cheese!

The flavors vary dramatically between different sheep breeds and what the animals are fed. Cheese produced in spring, when ewes graze lush pastures, tastes markedly different than winter milk when feeds are richer. Terroir also plays a role, with regional minerality coming through. No two sheep dairies make cheese that tastes exactly the same.

Making Feta and Other Brined Sheep Milk Cheeses

Equipment and Ingredients

Crafting brined sheep milk cheeses like feta starts with gathering some basic equipment and ingredients. Key gear includes cheesecloth, a thermometer, ladle, curd knife, mold, press, and aging container. Standard ingredients are sheep milk, cultures, rennet, cheese salt, and brine solution. Raw or pasteurized milk can be used.

For the brine, only food-grade salts should be used, never table salt, which has additives. The brine proportions are typically around 7% salt to water, so 70 g of salt per liter of water. The brining bucket needs to be food-safe and able to fit the amount of cheese being made, with extra room for the brine to fully submerge the cheese.

Step-by-Step Process

Curd Formation and Draining

The first step is acidifying the milk, adding cultures, and coagulating the curds with rennet. Once clean breaks are achieved in the curd, it’s cut into smaller pieces, then stirred and heated to expel whey. The curds are drained and salted, then packed into molds to consolidate the pieces into a single mass.

Salting and Brining

After pressing, the cheese round is cut into blocks and dry salted, either directly or brined. Feta is traditionally sliced into large chunks and loaded into jars filled with whey brine. The brine helps form rinds and develop flavors through the salts and lactic acid over time. Feta typically ages for at least 2 months.

Aging and Ripening

As with other brined cheeses like haloumi or paneer, the aging potential is limited, though the flavor continues to intensify over time, up to several months. Monitoring moisture levels and aerating the cheese helps prevent deteriorative mold in longer-aged batches. Adjusting salt and moisture allows for customization of texture.

Crafting Aged Sheep Milk Cheeses

Washed Rind Varieties

Washed rind Sheep cheeses are made by repeatedly washing the rind with whey, brine, beer, wine, or other solutions during aging. This encourages specific bacteria like Brevibacterium linens to grow, resulting in sticky orange rinds and pungent flavors. The interior paste remains soft and buttery, like Reblochon-style cheeses. Washed rinds can be ready in only a couple months but also age for over a year.

Semi-hard and Hard Types

Aged semi-hard and hard sheep milk cheeses are allowed to slowly develop complex nutty, sweet, and savory flavors. Firmer, drier types like Manchego are pressed to remove moisture, then salted and aged from 3 months up to a year or longer. Their density and lower moisture make them excellent for grating. Other classics, like Pecorino Romano and Roquefort, are also made with sheep milk. The high butterfat content allows for immense flavor complexity over long affinities.

Flavor Development

The diverse flavors in aged sheep cheeses develop through three main pathways: primary proteolysis, lipolysis, and metabolism of fat and amino acids by the microbiota and enzymes present. The unique composition of sheep milk, with higher concentrations of soluble nitrogen compounds and short-chain fatty acids, facilitates this flavor formation more than other ruminant milks. This makes sheep the perfect base for intensely flavorful aged cheeses.

Tips for Success With DIY Sheep Cheesemaking

Avoiding Pitfalls and Troubleshooting Issues

Like any type of cheesemaking, crafting quality sheep milk cheeses takes attention to detail, patience, and adherence to a good process. However, the high fat and protein content of sheep milk can present some unique challenges for the home cheesemaker.

Getting clean breaks from the curd is essential to prevent moisture issues later. Cutting the curd properly for the style, then heating and stirring gently, is key. Making sure whey drains effectively without losing fat will also improve consistency. Monitoring pH and acid development prevents problems down the line. Stretching acidification over time with multiple boosts helps.

Excess moisture is a common fault, leading to off-flavors and early spoilage. Poor rind formation can also cause unwanted mold or yeast growth. Ensuring presses extract adequate whey and the cheese dries effectively helps prevent this. Getting salt levels and humidity right when aging is critical as well.

Creating Consistent, Award-Worthy Cheeses

Crafting standout sheep cheeses that impress judges requires skill, monitoring, and a little creative artistry. Understanding sheep milk’s composition is the starting point. From there, controlling each step and fine-tuning techniques for the desired characteristics are important. Keeping detailed records batch-to-batch to achieve repeatable results is key for commercial cheesemakers entering competitions. That, plus developing a distinctive, complex, balanced flavor profile over time, helps earn high scores.

Sheep milk cheeses offer a world of unique flavors that cheese aficionados cannot get enough of. As the taste for tangy feta, nutty aged pecorino, and other complex Ewes milk varieties grows, we can expect many more people to develop an appreciation for cheeses made from this stellar dairy milk. Trying sheep cheese is a sensory experience every cheese lover should have on their bucket list!

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