It's trendy—but what makes it special? And is it worth the hype?
Alternative milks are all the rage these days. Plant-based beverages like soy, cashew, and especially almond milk are booming—and consumer concern about synthetic growth hormones and other issues endemic to agribusiness isn’t going away anytime soon. But do you need to go dairy-free to find a healthier or lower-impact milk product?
Goat milk, popping up all over at farmers markets and specialty food stores, has built a following for its purported health benefits—for example, some have noted that it is similar in structure to human breast milk. But how different is it from your normal gallon of supermarket milk? What can you even do with it? And, most importantly, does it taste like a goat? Food & Wine investigates.
Goat vs. cow?
One difference that might be surprising to cow-happy Americans—goat milk is the more common drink in much of the world (perhaps due to the fact that, especially for family farms, goats are cheaper animals to raise for milk).
Structurally, goat milk is also slightly different from cow milk: the fat globules are smaller, which some claim make it easier to digest, and it doesn’t separate in the same way that raw cow milk will. The casein proteins are not the same as those in cow milk, though the significance of that is up for debate.
Another main difference? It’s trendy. Back in In 1996, the New York Times reported on the increasing number of stores stocking goat milk in their dairy sections. And demand has spiked again in recent years.
Taste and texture
Nota bene: fresh, raw goat milk tastes different than the pasteurized varieties most commonly available at supermarkets. People on the internet seem to agree that store-bought goats milk can be distinctly, well…“goaty.” Meyenberg, the largest commercial producer in the U.S., describes the flavor as “slightly hazelnutty” on their website (their goat milk products are all ultra-pasteurized).
The raw stuff, on the other hand, is similar to any fresh whole cow milk. It’s sweet, thick with butterfat and not as “funky” as you might expect—though you can’t compare it to the 2% or skim varieties of cow milk that Americans typically favor, so it might take some getting used to.
Cow milk usually needs to be homogenized to maintain its texture, as it will eventually separate and form a creamline—this creaming process is much slower in goat milk. Some describe it as “thinner” or “looser” than raw whole cow milk.
The internet is full of dubious claims about the miraculous health benefits of goat milk—the same claims you hear about other niche ingredients, focusing on issues like immunity and the ever-present specter of “inflammation.”
In reality, it’s fairly comparable to cow milk. One of the main perceived benefits—that it’s better people with sensitivities to bovine milk—seems to be mostly untrue. Though the structure of the proteins and fat molecules is different, the Chicago Tribune found that “more than 90% of the time, people allergic to cow's milk are allergic to goat's milk.”
According to the USDA Food Composition Databases, goat milk has slightly more calories, protein and fat per cup than whole cow milk. It has a slight edge on some nutrients, like calcium, magnesium, potassium, and vitamins A and C. But it contains far less of the crucial vitamin B-12, and loses out on selenium and vitamin B-2. Goat milk also contains slightly less lactose, but not enough to make a huge difference for those who are lactose intolerant.
Some researchers have suggested health benefits that cow milk cannot offer. For example, a 2007 study from Spain’s University of Granada found that goat milk helps improve the “digestive and metabolic utilization” of important nutrients, namely “iron, calcium, phosphorus and magnesium.”
Based on my anecdotal farmers market experience, goat’s milk is always more expensive than cow’s milk—though both can cost a pretty penny if you’re going for organic locally-produced products. Scouring the groceries section of Amazon paints a similar picture for more mass-produced milk options—a quart-sized carton of Meyenberg Whole Goat Milk is around $4.50, which could easily get you a full gallon (4 quarts) of whole cow’s milk; a gallon of organic whole cow milk can be around $7, still much more economical than non-organic goat milk.
Cooking with goat milk
Goat milk can be used much in the same way as cow milk. It makes a good yogurt, which is slightly runnier than its bovine counterpart, and a soft, slightly tangier butter. And, of course, goat cheese—with its distinctive flavor, deriving from fatty acids prevalent in goat milk (some— namely caproic, caprylic and capric acid—are etymologically related to the Latin word for goat).
And it’s great for cooking, generally making a fine substitute for the bovine variety. Try it in soups like this chilled tomato version made creamier with goat milk yogurt, or even ice cream. Our latest favorite? This Goat Milk and Corn Panna Cotta with Blackberries from Top Chef winner Brooke Williamson, featured in our August 2017 issue.