Sure, I’m a city boy. Aside from a week spent working on a cattle ranch, most of my encounters with cows have been at the end of a fork. Even the cows on that ranch we’re destined for the killing floor (a misnomer actually – it’s more of a steel grating that lets loose material sluice through). Come to think about it, milk is the closest I ever get to a living cow.
And really, I thought I understood milk – it’s food number one after all. There’s literally no food product I’ve drinking for longer . You’ve got your skim milk, your whole milk, and that’s about it. So it was with considerable surprise that I encountered Trader Joe’s quart of Organic Cream Top Milk. What is this stuff? It’s neither of those types – how could there be a milk that I’d never heard of before?
Determined to find out, I cracked open the bottle, and was shocked at what I saw. I was prepared for cream top milk to taste creamy, or to have cream floating on top of it. What I wasn’t ready for was a physically solid plug of butter-like cream to be between me and the rest of the milk. Just beneath the milk cap is a stopper, and that stopper is a thick, smooth lump of pure milk fat. It doesn’t so much float on top of the milk as it is firmly crammed into the spout. Can milk be like this? Is this even normal?
Yes, as a matter of fact, it is. In fact, for much of the history of milk drinking, this is how everyone’s milk looked. The half inch thick of plug of butter fat is simply the result of skipping one eminently modern step in the milk process – homogenization.
Milk is a naturally complex liquid, with a great number of balanced interactions that occur between the various proteins, enzymes and fats that constitute it. About half a day after being gathered, the creamy fat in milk organically rises to the top and melds together.
Homogenization is the act of breaking these fats back down, pulverizing them on a molecular level, essentially, until they are so diffuse and scattered that they can no longer naturally join up. This microscopic demolition is done by rapidly shooting milk through tubes thinner than the width of a human hair until the fat can no longer reform. It’s a process first perfected by enterprising Frenchman Auguste Gaulin in 1899. The primary reason was one of longevity – with the fat dispersed throughout milk it becomes rancid less quickly, in addition to which it has a somewhat creamier taste, due to the diffusion of the fat.
So why is Trader Joe’s so determined to undo the hard work of monsieur Gaulin? The reason is similar to the drive for organic food – a return to nature. The question being asked is, is it not better to simply let milk be? Is it not, perhaps, in someway harmful to meddle so much with something fundamentally natural. There are proponents who come down on both sides of this issue, but science has not yet struck a conclusive blow for either side. In the absence of overwhelming evidence, the question is mainly a matter of personal taste. Just how natural do you like your milk?
It should also be noted that Trader Joe’s Cream Top Milk has several other features beyond the thick pat of cream. Most notably, it has a subtly richer flavor and more organic scent than your typical homogenized whole milk. There is a sort of ineffable wholeness to the smell that homogenized milk seems to lack.
Does this make it a worthwhile purchase? If you value being that much closer to the source – a touch closer to nature – then this is the milk for you. If you want milk that will last longer and taste a little blander, than you can stick to whole milk. Of course, if you usually shop skim like myself it’s all moot point. With 150 calories per cup, and more than half that from fat, it’s more of a calories expenditure than I’m willing to accept in a glass of milk.
This was an interesting purchase because it was a visceral reminder of the truly organic nature of milk, and I rather like the thought of having a little pat of semi-butter to harvest every morning for my toast or whatever. That said, it’s increasingly a fat-free world we live in. I might pick some more of this up around Christmas to see how it handles in egg nog, but until then I’ll be satisfied just knowing there’s something so primal on the dairy shelf.
Would I Recommend It: Yes to people who like their orange juice with pulp and their beef grass fed.
Would I Buy It Again: Nope – too much fat for my figure.
Final Synopsis: Whole milk with the fat floating on top instead of mixed in.