Beyond butter, cream and cheese

by Donna Berry
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When most chefs think of dairy ingredients, butter, cheese and cream typically come to mind. Research chefs recognize the dairy foods as premium ingredients that may, depending upon the application, be cost prohibitive and functionally challenging. Further, many bulk dairy foods vary in consistency of quality and flavor, as they are living products that can transform over time, especially when exposed to environmental changes during distribution and storage.

But because today’s label-reading consumer wants to know that the foods they buy taste great because they are made with the real characterizing dairy product, not something imitation or artificial, research chefs are starting to explore specialty dairy ingredients. These are isolated and concentrated components of milk or other dairy products, which often have been carefully manipulated for controlled functionality in a finished product.

The gold standard

Butter is the gold standard fat ingredient, as it delivers desirable flavor and color, in particular in baked goods, but it also is a fragile fat that doesn’t typically support long shelf life foods. Further, economics often limit its use to premium items that move quickly, such as fresh croissants and refrigerated hollandaise sauce.

The same is true for cream, which is a highly perishable refrigerated product. There are some shelf-stable creams available; however, once opened, the cream typically will spoil under refrigerated temperatures within a week.

There are a number of highly functional, economical milkfat ingredients available to formulators. Though there is no U.S. Standard of Identity for the ingredients; there is a Codex Alimentarius standard that most suppliers follow.

Codex standard 280-1973 applies to anhydrous milkfat, milkfat, anhydrous butteroil, butteroil and ghee. The first four ingredients are fatty products derived exclusively from milk and/or products obtained from milk by means of processing that result in almost total removal of water and nonfat solids. Ghee is obtained exclusively from milk, cream or butter by means of processing that results in almost total removal of water and nonfat solids.

The minimum milkfat content of the anhydrous ingredients is 99.8% with not more than 0.1% moisture. The other three ingredients have a minimum of 99.6% milkfat with no maximum moisture content specified.

These concentrated sources of milkfat provide many advantages over butter and cream. For starters, because moisture is removed, one is not spending money shipping water. Second, less is used in formulations, which means ingredient orders may be less frequent. And finally, in the case of butter, which is considered a fresh product with a refrigerated shelf life of up to six weeks, concentrated milkfat ingredients are typically stored in barrels with inert nitrogen gas and may have up to a six-month refrigerated shelflife.

These milkfat ingredients are usually completely solid below 60°F and liquid when at about 95°F, similar to butter. As a liquid, they are easy to meter and mix with other ingredients. They deliver a consistent composition, something fresh cream or butter cannot do because of natural variation. A common use is in super-premium frozen dairy desserts, which require the addition of extra milkfat, as well as other creamy-style desserts.

Coatings, confections and some baked goods further benefit from the use of the ingredients when the milkfat is separated into different compositions known as fractions. Fractions vary in melting points and may be customized to meet the specific needs of individual food products. For example, high-melting fractions work well in coatings for ice cream bars.

Cheesy food formulating

When it comes to formulating with cheese, seldom do commercial manufacturing environments work with the traditional cheddar or mozzarella one buys at the supermarket. Modern cheesemaking technologies allow for cheeses to be tailored to meet specific compositions and application requirements, such as restricted melt, enhanced flavor and controlled browning.

Most natural cheeses, which are living systems that evolve over time in terms of flavor and texture, are made from only four ingredients: cultures, enzymes, milk and salt. In Title 21 Part 133 of the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), the U.S. Food and Drug Administration legally defines cheese and outlines the requirements for more than 90 standardized cheeses, including natural varieties such as cheddar and mozzarella, as well as pasteurized cheeses such as cold-pack and process. Pasteurized cheeses start by blending a minimum amount of specified natural cheese with other ingredients, including those with emulsifying properties. The pasteurization (high-heat treatment) step deactivates the enzymes and cultures. Though natural cheeses are used in commercial food manufacturing, research chefs typically rely on pasteurized cheeses, as the cheeses are no longer living systems. This enables better control over functional properties, which is important in packaged foods developed for future consumption.

Cheesemakers may also create new cheeses that are not legally defined. Such non-standardized cheeses allow for additional ingredients and process modifications to meet finished product specifications.

Cheese ingredient selection dictates how a product may be labeled. If a specific cheese is declared on a product label, it must legally comply with standards, if one exists, with the term “real cheese” referring to any standardized cheese, natural or pasteurized. For example, if a packaged lasagna says it is made with Parmesan cheese, it must contain legally standardized Parmesan cheese. However, if all the label says is “made with real cheese,” the lasagna may include imitation cheese or non-standardized cheese as well as any standardized cheese. In other words, the formulator may choose to reduce cost by blending real cheese with less expensive cheeses or specialty cheese ingredients that have been modified for functionality.

When economics and extreme functionality become a product development priority, formulators often turn to highly specialized ingredients, some of which allow for a “made with real cheese” claim. For example, in the growing category of hand-held, pocket-style sandwiches, bulk-packed, pasteurized process cheese is often part of the cheese component. In particular, some suppliers offer heat-setting cheese sauces that help stabilize the gel or matrix of fillings. By doing so, when the finished product is heated by the consumer, the filling remains intact without oozing out of the product.

For bakery or heated applications, formulators may find success with lipid-based flakes and nuggets that mimic the appearance, flavor and performance of real cheese. They may be formulated to contain real cheese, or be designed as kosher pareve or kosher dairy. Such cheesy inclusions may come flavored with other ingredients, such as rosemary Parmesan and jalapeno Jack.

With such ingredients, the lipid-based matrix provides protection that allows for a year-plus shelf life. Further, the formulated inclusions provide food manufacturers with consistent availability and stability in pricing, something not possible with most standardized natural cheeses.

Enzyme-modified cheeses (EMC) long have been used to deliver consistent, economical and powerful cheese flavor to processed foods. They also are used to standardize cheese flavor in applications, or to boost flavor in applications where the amount of cheese that may be used may be limited, for example, in low-fat entrees.

EMCs are paste-like ingredients made from special blends of natural cheese, lipases and other natural food-grade enzymes. The enzymes allow for the cheese paste to develop a 10- to 20-fold increase in flavor in just a couple of days, mimics the flavor of cheese that is naturally ripened over a 30-plus day period, depending on variety. EMC pastes may be dried into a powder form.

Flavor-amplified dairy ingredients come in many flavor profiles. Some suppliers offer paste-like dairy ingredients that start with a base of standard-of-identity cheese and/or natural dairy products, such as butter, cream and yogurt, to which cultures and enzymes are added. The resulting ingredient is three- to 20-times the flavor strength of the original base ingredient.

With such concentrated ingredients, less is required to achieve the same sensory profile of the bulk dairy ingredient. Costs in shipping and storage also are reduced.

Nonfat dried milk

The original concentrated dairy ingredient is nonfat dried milk. As the name suggests, it is fat-free milk from which almost all water has been removed. The dried ingredient is basically protein (casein and whey) and the reducing sugar lactose. Together, the macronutrients promote the Maillard browning reaction in applications that are baked or heated. Maillard browning is largely responsible for the characteristic golden-brown color of baked goods and caramelized products.

Lactose is available as a stand-alone ingredient. It is a white to creamy-white crystalline product that possesses a mildly sweet taste. It is often added to confections and baked goods for its ability to assist with desirable browning.

The two proteins in nonfat dry milk exert unique functionalities, and depending on the application, sometimes a formulator prefers to use isolate casein or whey ingredients. Specifically, casein is best known for its ability to bind fat and water, while whey proteins, which denature when heated, contribute to structure, texture and volume.

The many uses of whey

Whey also has many other uses, both nutritional and functional. In fact, whey, long considered a byproduct of cheesemaking, is one of the most in-demand ingredients in the food and beverage formulating world because of its “powerhouse protein” fame. Whey proteins contain all of the essential amino acids that the human body needs, and in the right proportion. Because they are easy to digest and easy to work with, they are commonly sought for protein fortification efforts.

Select whey protein ingredients also offer unique functionalities. For example, an ingredient composed of whey protein concentrate and milled flaxseed functions as an egg replacement system in baked goods. The ingredient assists with the issue of rising egg prices, as it is a stable-priced ingredient system for 100% egg replacement in all types of baked goods. The ingredient offers nutritional advantages, too, as it is a source of the omega-3 alpha-linolenic acid, high-quality protein and natural fiber.

Whey permeate, also known as whey solids, functions as a sodium-reduction solution in many applications. Research shows that whey permeate may help formulators achieve salty flavor characteristics while displacing salt to keep sodium contents down in a number of applications. Permeate is a concentrated source of lactose, and thus the ingredient also contributes to browning by the Maillard reaction.

Advances in technology will continue to allow for refined and specialized dairy ingredients that provide research chefs with economical and functional advantages over using bulk dairy foods in product development. Such ingredients also may help keep labels clean and nutrition profiles attractive.
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