What’s more delicious than a fresh slice of tasty mozzarella, stacked atop a thick slice of heirloom tomato and garnished with salt, pepper, olive oil, and a leaf of fresh basil? Not much. It can be hard to find truly fresh mozzarella, and the store-bought, pre-shredded kind is a pale imitation of the original. It is well-known that the best way to eat mozzarella is to enjoy it within a few hours of it being made, and better still if it hasn’t been refrigerated to preserve the stringy texture and creamy taste. It’s a good thing making your own is easy and fun!
But first, a quick peek at the history of this unique cheese. The history of mozzarella (and other pasta filata cheeses) runs parallel to the history of our relationship with the water buffalo in what is now Naples in southern Italy, from about the 12th century AD. Land inhabited by peasants was abandoned during raids and wars in that time, and the neglected land turned marshy, which is the water buffalo’s preferred terrain. Settlers moved in with buffalo herds, and began cultivating ‘black mines’ that produced ‘white gold’ – the buffalos’ rich and creamy milk. Because this fresh cheese was made from raw milk (As all cheeses were – pasteurization was not invented until the late 19th century) and due to the lack of refrigeration technology in these centuries, this cheese hardly ever traveled far from the area and was a local delicacy.
Much later, in the early 20th century, agrarian reforms focused on drying out the marshlands and buffalo herds dwindled. Cow milk began to replace buffalo in mozzarella recipes. During WWII, most of the remaining buffalo herds were decimated and while buffalo were reintroduced after the war, most of the mozzarella recipes brought to the U.S. by immigrants called for cow’s milk. These days it is still possible to enjoy mozzarella di bufala, though it is often an expensive and rich treat.
The technique used to make mozzarella is called pasta filata, or spun paste, and is unique in the cheese-making world. Curds are created in the traditional way, with acidic milk and rennet. The curd is cut, and then drained of whey and coagulated into a semi-firm curd. Now the fun part – that curd is steeped in very hot water or whey, and it begins to melt and change texture. The melting curd is taken out of the hot water, stretched, and formed into a smooth ball. On a molecular level, this changes the structure of the proteins, stretching what was a messy knot of proteins and fat into smooth strands of protein with pockets of fat and liquids in between. What’s amazing about this is that the cheese itself hasn’t changed; it still has the same ingredients, but the taste and texture are completely different! Mozzarella shares its origins with a few other cheeses, namely Burrata, Provolone, Caciocavallo, and Scamoza. All of these are similar cheeses but are treated differently after being made. Burrata and Mozzarella are eaten fresh, while Provolone, Caciocavallo, and Scamoza are further aged. All are delicious with a smooth, rubbery texture, thanks to the pasta filata technique.
Making mozzarella at home is easy and fun. It is very important, however, to choose the right kind of milk: use the highest-quality milk you can find, gently pasteurized, and preferably non-homogenized. Most milk found at supermarkets in the U.S. is ultrapasteurized, which means that the milk has been heated to temperatures as high as 280°F in order to kill any harmful bacteria. This harsh process adversely affects the molecular structure of the milk, making it more likely that the curd won’t stretch or will have an unpalatable texture. It’s often not possible to find out the exact temperature the milk has been pasteurized at (rules and regulations vary by state and country), so if your curd doesn’t work and you did everything right, it might be a milk issue. Try another brand of milk!
This recipe uses citric acid, which immediately acidifies the milk. Other recipes use lactic acid bacteria, which takes more time, but I’ve found this mozzarella to be delicious and indistinguishable from the “traditional” method. Before beginning there are a few items that need to be bought, I buy my cheesemaking supplies through Amazon.com or Cheesemaking.com.
Quick Mozzarella Recipe
- 2 gallons of good-quality whole milk (NOT ultra-pasteurized and non-homogenized if you can find it)
- 3 ½ tsp Citric Acid
- ½ tablet rennet OR ½ tsp liquid rennet
- Large Pot or Dutch Oven
- Colander lined with cheesecloth or fine-mesh sieve
- Bowl for hot water
- Slotted spoon or ladle
- Curd Knife or long dull knife
- Sharp Knife
- Pickling/Brining Salt
- Nitrile Gloves
Sanitize all Equipment With Boiling Water Before Starting
Measure out citric acid into a ½ cup of cool water, and stir to dissolve. Pour into Dutch oven. Then, pour milk into Dutch oven over the citric acid and stir well. Milk will begin to curdle as it’s now quite acidic.
Place the milk pot into the sink and fill your sink with very hot water to warm the milk to 90°F, stirring constantly. You could also heat over low heat on a stovetop, stirring constantly. While heating, mix liquid or rennet tablet into ¼ cup of cool water.
When milk reaches 90°F, quickly add rennet to the milk, stirring up and down for 30 seconds and then letting curd rest, undisturbed, for 5 minutes. After 5 minutes, check the curd by pulling it away from the wall of the pot, or check for “clean break” with a knife.
Cut the curd with the knife into ½ to 1-inch squares and let this rest for 5 minutes.
Prepare the cheesecloth and colander or sieve over a sink or pot. I used both here for faster draining.
Using a slotted spoon, scoop the curd from the pot into the colander with cheesecloth or sieve and allow the whey to drain, reserving some whey in the Dutch oven. You can also scoop both curd and whey into the colander with a bigger cup, but draining will take longer.
Gently press the curd onto itself, facilitating draining and forming a single curd mass. If using cheesecloth, you can carefully lift the curd out of the colander using the 4 corners of the cheesecloth after it has drained for a while. Curd is ready when it looks solid and is no longer leaking whey.
As the curd drains, prepare hot water: it should be at least 175°F. Also prepare a brine: Add 2-3 tbs. of salt plus 2-3 tbsp of your clear whey to a large bowl of room-temperature water.
Wearing gloves, cut or break the curd into 1-2 inch pieces. Take a handful of curds and place into a bowl – pour hot water or whey over the curd just to cover it. Work the curd by pressing it together and folding in the hot water (with your gloved hands OR with a spoon) to facilitate even heating. As the curd begins to meld together, lift it from the hot water and begin to stretch.
Curd should stretch mostly on its own – a lot of kneading isn’t necessary. If the curd does not stretch, check and adjust your water temperature and re-immerse the curd. If there continues to be stretching issues, it might be a milk problem.
If curd begins to cool too much, or if it begins to tear, place it back in the hot water to reheat. Add more hot water if necessary. Form into a ball when the curd is very shiny – make an “OK” sign with your hand and press the curd through the hole in your fingers to create a ball.
At this point your mozzarella is finished! Place in brine and let sit for 20-40 minutes, then refrigerate or enjoy right away!
Reprinted with permission from our friends at Fix.com/blog
About the author:
Jeanine Dargis is a professional cheesemaker who has made cheese in Hawaii, Maine, and New Jersey. She now works in New Jersey giving cheesemaking classes and seminars in the NYC Metro area. More information can be found at www.cheeseteacher.com.