September 13, 2011

Dairy Contest Brings Best of N.Y.

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Every August, the New York State Fair brings fried dough and meat-on-sticks to the Syracuse Fairgrounds, delighting central New Yorkers as they cling to the last warm days of summer before the fair concludes on September 5. The State Fair food competitions also highlight another, less-greasy New York State speciality: dairy products.

New York State makes some of the best quality milk in the country. The Dairy Products competition celebrates local milk and the many delicious products into which it can be transformed.

To enter, food processors sent their products to specific classes of dairy.  A small team of judges evaluated the entries in early August, and the winners were honored at the State Fair’s Dairy Day on August 29, which featured a parade, a giant butter sculpture, and a Dairy Princess. Top prize in each class is a gold medal and bragging rights for display on product packaging. Judges also declare a Grand Champion to reign over all the products. This year, a monterey jack cheese produced by McCadam Cheese Company in Chateaugay, N.Y. took top honors.

The competition pits New York dairy titans against one another in classes like “Butter,” “Sour Cream” and “‘Super Aged’ Cheddar.” Judges tease apart the subtle differences between the milk stuffs based on texture and flavor, assigning a score to each entry.

Jason Huck, Cornell Dairy Plant Manager and judge, explained the judges’ approach to scoring sour cream this year: “We look for things like the degree of diacetyl,” which in laymen’s terms means buttery flavor, like the kind that flavors movie popcorn. In dairy products, good bacteria naturally make the desirable flavor out of milk. “This year we also looked a lot at texture – some of the sour creams we looked at were very over-stabilized,” he said. Unlike diacetyl, which is naturally formed in sour cream, stabilizers are added by processors to stiffen up sour creams and give them heft. Too much stabilizer can create an unpleasantly thick putty that clings to your spoon.

Entrants send all dairy products to Janene Lucia, Extension Support Specialist in Cornell’s Milk Quality Improvement Program, who coordinates logistics for the competition. The judges themselves are often affiliated or very familiar with Cornell, coming from the Dairy Extension team or New York’s Department of Agriculture & Markets.

Judging itself took place in Morrison Hall this year on August 8-10. The team nibbled and swilled their way through hundreds of submissions in 21 product classes. “We did 30 cheddars in a four-hour period, and I did not want to eat cheddar for a week,” Huck said.

Judges score the entries based on established standards for every class. New York State cheddars, for example, shouldn’t be too acidic or too bitter, though a touch of bitterness can be desirable in some cheddar, according to Steve Murphy, Dairy Extension Specialist and judge. Judges compare products with the gold standards that they’ve come to recognize over years of tasting cheese.

Tasting sessions are closed, but a peek at the mysterious judging process reveals serious figures in lab coats gurgling, swishing, and spitting dairy into a disposable cup in one hand, while some swig coffee, to stay alert, from a cup in the other. Chip Lindberg, chief judge of the competition, and the other judges have studied dairy for years. Their ability to pick out defects – and articulate them – keeps New York dairy producers striving to make tasty, flavorful products that might well stand out in your next sandwich.

Original Author: Daina Ringus