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From the Field

Fat is Back! Face It: Most of the Flavor in Dairy Products is Found in the Fat

I admit it, I have a love affair with dairy fat. I love butter. I love higher fat premium ice creams and I love higher fat premium yogurts. I like higher fat cheeses too. So, I ask you, “What is wrong with that?” In my opinion, Fat = Flavor! The key is moderation.

People can consume higher fat products, they just don’t need to consume them in such high quantities. Would you rather have a smaller portion of a good tasting product, or a bigger portion of a so-so tasting dairy product? I choose the former, please. I love that diacetyl flavor that comes from butter or from some flavor producing dairy cultures. I used to have a saying when nonfat products first came on the market: No Fat = No Good! Please don’t take exception to my statements. These are my personal opinions. The pork industry likes to say, “Things go better with bacon”. I have a dairy saying that goes, “Things go better with butter”, or in this case…with butter fat!

In other countries, sour cream really means, “sour heavy cream”- such as in a 40% fat level heavy cream. In Australia, for example, their fat level in sour cream is 36-40% fat. Ours in the United States is 18% fat. The Australians would consider our regular sour cream “light” given that it contains only half the fat of their regular fat product. As more international products are introduced to the US, we need to be receptive to these types of products.  

For example, take the Greek yogurt craze. Ten years ago, nobody knew about Greek yogurt. But it turned out it was a better product than traditional yogurt and has taken the nation by storm. Another product that comes to mind is Wallaby sour cream. According to the nutritional statement and the number of grams of fat per serving, it’s a sour cream with 33% fat. Who doesn’t like a sour cream with more fat in it? If you are not watching your calories, why not opt for the creamier and better tasting product?

Making it Work

Throughout my dairy career, I have learned from a few ideas that I first thought wouldn’t work, but in fact worked just fine. That brings to mind an instance of a dairy farmer in Pennsylvania who had a herd of Brown Swiss cows he was milking. He asked me to show him how to make yogurt from his milk. His goal was to make value-added products out of his higher fat raw milk rather than just bottling and selling milk. The fat level from the milk expressed from his Brown Swiss cows was in the range of a 3.8 – 4.0% butterfat. He took this whole milk, vat pasteurized it and made whole milk yogurt for his small retail store on the farm. His neighbors just loved it. Why not?  It was a whole milk yogurt and a higher fat one too - about 4% butterfat! It was creamy and had a great flavor.

After that experience, he wanted to try making sour cream. This is where it gets interesting. He would take 19-20% fat cream that was given to him by a local dairy, add stabilizer, vat pasteurize it, culture it, and wait for the pH to come down to <4.60 and make sour cream. He did not have a homogenizer and had no plans on homogenizing the stabilized 19% fat mixture. I told him he would probably get a cream layer on his sour cream given that un-homogenized dairy fat will rise to the top because the specific gravity of cream is less than the specific gravity of milk or skim milk. All he could do was try it and see how it came out. To my surprise, he did not get a cream layer, and he had fantastic tasting sour cream. It had better flavor than many of the sour creams I have tasted. The un-homogenized butterfat actually had a better diacetyl flavor - probably due to a much larger fat globule size that was easier to detect and more pleasing on the palate. The explanation of no evident cream layer on top was related to the stabilizer, which consisted of a blend of starch and gelatin. Vat pasteurizing created a much higher viscosity than is evident in a straight fluid product. The sour cream culture incubation took about 16-18 hours. The unhomogenized fat globules could not rise through the thicker sour cream mixture because it was sitting quiescently before the coagulum was set up by lactic acid coagulation. The casein proteins create a gel network as they approach the isoelectric point of the casein which is about a pH of 4.65. Thus, no cream layer was ever produced.

The dairy farmer started selling his sour cream to chefs in restaurants because they loved his sour cream’s flavor. They felt it was better tasting than any other sour cream they could purchase through retail channels. This was a pleasant surprise and a learning experience. Just when you think you have seen everything in the dairy industry and you predict that something won’t work, it works just fine and has becomes a successful product.