The making of butter is almost as old as the milking of goats, cows, and other milk-producing animals. Butter is easily made by letting a pan of milk set quietly until the cream floats to the top. The cream is skimmed off and allowed to sour and thicken into a form called clabber cream. Churning or other techniques are then used to shake up the cream and separate it into a liquid (buttermilk) and a solid fat (butter). Butter consists of 80 percent fat.

Butter is solid but soft at room temperatures. It stores well when refrigerated and can even be frozen to extend its shelf-life. It also melts easily but resolidifies quickly. Butter is usually pale yellow, though the actual shade of yellow depends on the milk animal's diet.

Butter is usually salted, though unsalted butters are now available. Sweet butter (or sweet cream butter) is made from unfermented milk in the same ways as other butters.

Butter appears often in the Old Testament (e.g., Genesis 18:8; Deuteronomy 32:14; Judges 5:25; II Samuel 17:29; Job 20:17). Over the millennia, butter has been used as a medicine and a cosmetic. During the Middle Ages, butter was also used as a packing medium to protect fragile articles during transport: the item was submersed in melted butter, moved when the butter had solidified, then melted out of the butter at its destination.


Buttermilk is the liquid left after butter is made from full-cream milk. Buttermilk has a slightly sour taste and is a popular refreshing drink, particularly in India. Nowadays, buttermilk is cultured by adding souring agents (such as lactic acid) to whole milk. Buttermilk is an important ingredient in many Middle Eastern breads, creamy soups, and cream sauces.


Made in nearly every country where milk is produced, cheese is a solid food made from curdled milk, primarily the milk of cows, goats, sheep, reindeer, camels, and water buffalo. To make cheese, milk is first cultured with bacteria, as in the making of buttermilk. The milk is then curdled (broken into solid [curds] and liquid [whey]) by adding a curdling agent such as rennet (sometimes known as rennin, which is the pure enzyme), vinegar, or lemon juice. The whey is drained away, and the curds may be pressed to remove additional moisture before they are aged (sometimes called ripened) to allow them to dry further and develop flavor. Sometimes the curds are exposed to molds or bacteria, washed with beer or brandy, smoked over fragrant woods, coated with herbs and spices, or even encased in wax to give them particular flavors or consistencies.

Cheeses are either natural or processed. The natural cheeses include

  • Soft, unripened (fresh) cheeses, such as Cottage Cheese, Cream Cheese, Farmer Cheese, Mascarpone, Mozzarella, Ricotta, and String Cheese. These are generally low in fat and sodium and relatively neutral in taste so that they combine readily with many other foods.
  • Semisoft cheeses, such as Bel Paese, Brick, Edam, Fontina, Gouda, Jarlsberg, Liederkranz, Limburger, Muenster, Port Salut, Provolone, and Tilsit. These comprise the largest category of cheeses; they are relatively moist and delicatetasting, and they slice and melt well for use in sandwiches or in cooking.
  • Soft-ripened cheeses, such as Brie and Camembert. These cheeses are aged after their surfaces are sprayed with penicillin, developing soft, edible rinds. They are generally lower in calories than firm cheeses.
  • Firm (hard) cheeses, such as Cheddar, Colby, Gruyère, Monterey Jack, and Swiss. These cheeses are quite popular for cooking, and they have a robust flavor that makes them ideal for snacking. Losing moisture as they age, they provide a more concentrated source of calcium than softer cheeses.
  • Very hard (grating) cheeses, such as Asiago, Dry Jack, Parmesan, Romano, and Sapsago. These cheeses have dense textures and highly concentrated flavors. They grate finely, and can even be grated when frozen.
  • Blue-veined cheeses, such as Gorgonzola and Stilton. These cheeses are inoculated with molds and allowed to ripen until they develop blue-green veins and intense flavors.
  • Goat's- and sheep's-milk cheeses, such as Chèvre, Feta, and Roquefort. These cheeses tend to be higher in fat but lower in cholesterol than cow's milk cheeses.

Processed cheeses are made by melting one or more ground natural cheeses to form a smooth mass, pasteurizing, adding sweeteners, pouring out, and then slicing when the cheese recongeals.

Most cheeses are high in protein, vitamins A and B12, calcium, phosphorus, riboflavin, and zinc. They are also high in calories, fat, cholesterol, and sodium. The actual nutritional content varies depending on the type of cheese and the process by which it is made. In general, the harder cheeses provide more calcium than the softer. Cheese appears at least three times in the biblical texts (I Samuel 17:18; II Samuel 17:29; Job 10:10), where it denotes curdled milk. Cheeses of all types are very common in Middle Eastern cooking.

Cheese, camel's-milk

Camel's-milk cheese is made, of course, from camel's milk, though the processing of camel's milk into cheese is said to be more difficult than the processing of other milk into cheese because camel's milk is more difficult to curdle, or thicken. Furthermore, the cheesesmade fromcamel's milk tend to be soft and perishable. On the other hand, camel's-milk cheese is high in vitamins, low in cholesterol, and low in lactose. One cheese, kadchgall, is sometimes made from camel's milk clotted with yogurt, though it is usually made from sheep's milk. Camel's-milk cheese is most likely the curds indicated in Genesis 32:15 (KJV).

Cheese, cheddar

Cheddar cheese is a firm cheese that is the favorite of U.S. consumers, representing about 33 percent of the total U.S. cheese consumption. Ranging from white to deep orange, cheddar is mild and slices easily. It is used in sandwiches and salads, as a snack or appetizer, and in cooking. It is usually made from cow's or goat's milk.

Cheese, Edam

Edam is the famous Dutch cheese that comes covered in red wax or red cellophane. A semisoft cheese, mild and buttery-tasting, it is made from part-skim milk.

Cheese, feta

First developed in Greece, feta cheese can be made from either goat's or sheep's milk. It is chalky-white in color and very porous. Feta cheese, made in brine, has a high sodium content; the sodium can be reduced by draining the cheese and rinsing it in fresh cold water.

Cheese, ricotta curds

Ricotta is a soft, unripened cheese made from whey and whole or skim milk. Finely textured, it can be eaten alone, though it is most often used as an ingredient in Italian pasta dishes (such as lasagna and cannelloni) and pastries.

Cheese, sheep's-milk

A variety of sheep's-milk cheeses are available, from salty feta to pungent Roquefort. Sheep's-milk cheeses tend to be higher in fat than those made from cow's milk.


Cream is the fatty layer that rises to the top of unhomogenized milk. (Homogenization is the process whereby the milkfat is distributed evenly throughout the milk, usually by forcing the milk through small openings to break the fat into tiny particles that remain suspended instead of rising to the surface.) There are two types of cream: sweet and sour. Sweet creams include half-and-half, light cream (also called coffee cream or table cream), light whipping cream, and heavy cream. Heavy cream will contain 36 percent milkfat, while half-and-half will contain between 10.5 and 18 percent milkfat. Sour creams include dairy sour cream, sour half-and-half, lowfat sour cream, light sour cream, and fat-free sour cream. Sour creams contain at least 18 percent milkfat, and they are made by culturing cream with lactic acid bacteria.

Cream, sour

See Cream.

Cream, whipping

See Cream.


Also known as caciocavallo, kashkaval is a type of cottage cheese, usually made from cow's or sheep's milk. It originated in Sicily, probably in the 14th century c.e., where it was most likely made from the milk of mares (hence the name caciocavallo, which means “cheese on horseback”—or the name may relate to the practice of hanging the cheese molds astride horizontal rods; in old Italian street talk, to “end up like caciocavallo” meant “to be hanged”). Now it is popular throughout southeastern Europe, from Hungary to Turkey. It has a mild, slightly salty flavor that becomes more pungent as it ages; soft when young, it is granular and ideal for grating when mature.


Kefir is a liquid drink that is somewhat like yogurt. Originally from eastern Europe, it was made from mare's milk and fermented with a cultured starter until it became slightly alcoholic. Modern versions of kefir are made from cow's or camel's milk, are nonalcoholic, are less tart than plain yogurt, and are available plain or flavored with fruit.


Milk is perhaps the one food that every human being has consumed in his or her life, as every human baby is dependent on milk—either its own mother's breast milk, the breast milk of a wet nurse, or milk from another animal—for sustenance and survival. Humans have taken milk from many mammals over the millennia: goats, sheep, mares, llamas, donkeys, buffalo, camels, reindeer, and yaks, in addition to cows, which provide the vast majority of milk for human consumption. For most of history and much of human prehistory, people (primarily young children) drank milk fresh, soon after the animals (whichever they were) had been milked; but milk is also the raw material for butter, cheese, cream, and yogurt and has been processed in many ways to suit the human palate.

Perhaps the first peoples to consume the milk of another species were the nomads of the Eurasian steppes, who preferred mare's milk to all other types, even though they had sheep and goats. In historic times, the first record of milking comes from a 2900 b.c.e. frieze found at Ur, in ancient Mesopotamia. For both the ancient Israelites and Egyptians, milk, mostly goat's milk but perhaps also from sheep and cows, was a rare treat, synonymous with wealth: thus the Promised Land was called the “land flowing with milk and honey.” The milking of buffalo in China began about 2000 b.c.e., though again, milk seems to have been accessible only to the wealthy. When the Aryans entered India about 1750 b.c.e., they brought their herds of cows along; these nomads depended so heavily on milk products that the cow became sacred on the subcontinent. The ancient Greeks had milk from goats and sheep, preferring the former, but used it primarily to make cheese. The ancient Romans seem to have preferred sheep's milk; they also used it to make cheese but did mix milk with wine for drinking.

Of all the milks, donkey's (or ass's) milk is the closest to human milk. Human milk has more fat, but otherwise they are similarly digestible. Next would be mare's milk, which was probably the first that humans consumed on a regular basis, and goat's milk, which is sweeter than cow's milk, followed by sheep's, camel's, and reindeer's. At the bottom of the scale of digestibility by humans are the milks of cows, buffalo, and yaks. Why, then, does about 90 percent of the milk consumed by humans come from cows? The reason lies both in the animals' docility and in their responsiveness to selective breeding, which has rendered certain breeds of cows mere milk-producing machines.

While some people praise the practice of breastfeeding because it provides exactly the correct nutrients for a human baby and also transfers certain antibodies from the mother to the infant, others claim that mother's milk has such high levels of antibiotics, pesticides, and other pollutants that it is unsafe for human consumption. It is true that chemicals tend to become concentrated in humans, who are high on the food chain; cows and goats and other milk-producing animals also ingest high levels of antibiotics and pesticides, so their milk is also adversely affected. Additionally, the required pasteurization of milk, a process by which it is purified for human use, destroys all the vitamin C and beneficial bacteria that were present in the milk when it was produced by the milk animal. Milk does contain significant amounts of calcium, phosphorous, and riboflavin, and calcium- and vitamin-fortified milk is often available for purchase.

At the same time, the human habit of drinking the milk of other animals is actually contrary to nature. Milk contains a rich sugar called lactose; cow's milk has a lot of it, and goat's milk has very little of it. Human babies produce an enzyme called lactase in their intestines, and only this enzyme can serve to digest lactose. As human babies mature into childhood and then into adulthood, their systems produce less and less lactase, until they are unable to digest milk (or most milk products) at all. Fully 80 percent of the world's people of color and many Mediterranean peoples are lactose intolerant, meaning that their digestive systems are unable to handle most milks, the result being painful gas, flatulence, cramps, and diarrhea. In recent years, lactase supplements have become available for those who enjoy milk, cheese, ice cream, and butter. A more natural solution would be to avoid milk and its derivatives: the body seems to know what is healthful for it to consume.

Milk, camel's

Camel's milk is heavy and sweet (some might say unpleasantly so and might compare it to evaporated milk), but it is a highly prized luxury of desert peoples. Unfortunately, a milk camel can give only 6 to 10 quarts of milk per day, even under completely favorable conditions. For this reason, camel's milk is not a major staple of the human diet.

Milk, goat's

Goat's milk is generally sweeter than cow's milk. The fat in goat's milk is present in smaller globules than that in cow's milk, making raw goat's milk more digestible by humans; however, homogenization of milk breaks the fat globules apart anyway, so in the long run homogenized cow's milk is no less digestible than goat's milk. Additionally, goat's milk has slightly less lactose than cow's milk.


Although yogurt has been a staple food in Asia, the Middle East, and eastern Europe for millennia, it did not become popular in the United States until the 1970s. To yogurt has been attributed the ability to cure everything from insomnia to cancer, but scientific research has not substantiated any of these claims. It is true, however, that yogurt provides calcium, protein, riboflavin, phosphorus, and vitamin B12. It is versatile, delicious alone or with fruit, and can be substituted for mayonnaise, heavy cream, whipped cream, or sour cream in many recipes.

To make yogurt, pasteurized and often homogenized milk is curdled with purified cultures of Lactobacillus bulgaricus and Streptococcus thermophilus, special bacteria that turn the milk sugar (lactose) into lactic acid. Warmed in an incubator, the yogurt thickens and develops its distinct flavor. Sometimes nonfatmilk solids are added to make the yogurt even thicker. Usually, the bacteria survive the process; sometimes, the yogurt is pasteurized again, which kills the bacteria.

Because the lactose has been reduced by the bacteria, yogurt is generally more digestible for people who are lactose intolerant; yogurt with live cultures (that is, yogurt that has not been heat treated after culturing) is most easily digested by such persons. The live cultures also help digest casein and may even help restore the beneficial bacteria to a digestive system that has been cleaned out by the use of antibiotics.

Yogurt is available plain or flavored, in nonfat, low-fat, and whole-milk forms. It is also available in frozen form, often as dessert products. Yogurt makes a fine topping for cereals. Blended with fresh or frozen fruits and/or fruit juices, it makes a low-fat shake. It can be mixed with scallions, chives, curry powders, herbs, or mustards to make a tangy dip for vegetables or chips. Yogurt can add texture to soups and guacamole and is a nutritious dressing for cucumber, chicken, and tuna salads. It is a low-fat substitute for sour cream atop baked potatoes and can serve as a tangy marinade for chicken and fish.

If the whey is drained from yogurt, the result is yogurt cheese, which is a soft milk product that can be used in place of cream cheese, sour cream, or crème fraiˆche. Yogurt cheese is delicious in low-fat dips and spreads, in tuna or chicken salads, and in desserts. Yogurt is a popular ingredient in many Middle Eastern recipes.