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Fresh Mozzarella

POSTED August 24, 2014

“C’è mozzarella … e mozzarella”—as we say in Italy—“There’s mozzarella … and then there’s mozzarella.” Once you’ve tasted an authentic fresh mozzarella, you’ll know exactly what this means. When served at room temperature so that its full flavor and milky texture can be truly enjoyed, mozzarella fresca—that is, mozzarella that has just been made—can induce a state of almost perfect contentment. If there is a gastronomical nirvana, this is it. Oddly, not much is known about the historical origins of this cheese; though, it’s generally agreed that it originated in the region now known as Campania.

In Italy, the most sought-after mozzarella comes in two forms: one is made from fresh cow’s milk and is called fior di latte (literally, “the flower of milk”); the other is Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, which is made from the milk of water buffaloes and is considered the very best type you can get. Like other treasures of Italian cuisine, it carries the D.O.P. (Denomination of Protected Origin) label, guaranteeing it is made only in a specified geographical area, using strictly regulatedproduction methods.To receive this coveted label, Mozzarella di Bufala Campana must be produced only in the regions of Campania and Lazio—specifically in the provinces of Caserta and Salerno, and parts of the provinces of Benevento, Naples, Frosinone, Latina and Rome. The higher cost of buffalo mozzarella is due not only to the particular production methods used, but also because female buffaloes produce less milk than cows. However, Mozzarella di Bufala Campana has no rivals; pearl white in color, more moist and flavorful than the cow milk version, its taste is truly superb. Like most varieties of fresh mozzarella, buffalo mozzarella is usually sold submerged in a whey and brine liquid; if refrigerated, it should be left out half an hour (at least) before eating.

Fior di latte, the cow’s milk mozzarella, is not D.O.P., and so in Italy as elsewhere, the quality of the cheese varies greatly depending on the methods of production. But, a good fresh, homemade cow’s milk mozzarella can make you swoon—its unique taste and texture is impossible to find in industrial cheese. Difficult as it may be to believe, fior di latte is often better in the U.S. than in Italy because cow’s milk mozzarella is no longer made the artisanal way here. Ironically, most of the mozzarella that is available in supermarkets and even groceries in Italy is absolutely average compared to what can be purchased in Italian grocery stores in the U.S., where the mozzarella is made daily on the premises. Since it is consumed the same day that it’s made, it doesn’t need to be refrigerated and its inimitable taste is not lost. Usually these U.S. stores, which are often family run, take a real pride in how delicious their mozzarella is and the authenticity of the methods used. In contrast, thereare also bricks of processed cheese sold as mozzarella that have great melting characteristics but are not recommended to eat as is, as you would do with fresh mozzarella.

Besides the Mozzarella di Bufala Campana and fior di latte,there are other cheeses on the market that are considered part of the same family. One is the addictive burrata, made in Puglia, which is a buffalo mozzarella with the addition of buffalo-milk cream. It’s dangerously delicious. Provolaand provola affumicata are varieties of cheeses that are produced similarly to buffalo mozzarella but contain much less liquid. Provola is often preferred to mozzarella or sometimes mixed together with it, for example in pizzas, especially in the Campania region. New inventions occasionally appear on the market in Italy, such as mozzarella blended with olives, and a burrata with smoked salmon mixed in, which we can assure you, is absolutely luscious.

 

How it’s made

The methods of production for mozzarella di bufala and fior di latte are similar, though there are some differences due to variations in the acidity and fat content of the two kinds of milk. But, the artisanal methods of production for both varieties are closely related.

For mozzarella di bufala, the production normally starts in the middle of the night. The master cheese maker opens the taps of the pasteurized whole buffalo milk that was collected the previous morning, allowing the milk to flow into large tubs. A “starter,” made from the previous day’s whey, is added to the lukewarm milk. This whey is full of microorganisms that keep the production cycles alive; in a kind of “life goes on” metaphor, the starter is essential to the production of mozzarella.

Like a giant cappuccino, the milk is then steamed and starts to bubble. At this point, straw-colored, liquid curd is very measured and added to the milk. This is a crucial moment, because a small mistake can cause hours of delay in production. The entire mixture is stirred very quickly with a huge perforated spoon. Half an hour later, the surface of each tub becomes a compacted and shiny white mass, which must be broken up with large whisk. The cheese makers take turns breaking up the compacted mass into a myriad of small pieces; this operation requires skill, rapidity and a great deal of strength. There are only a few places where this work is still done by hand; in most places, a mechanical tool is used. After the mass is broken up, it must rest for a few minutes so that all the pieces of cheese are allowed to settle at the bottom of the tub. Then the whey is pumped out and filtered through a pipe; what is left in the tub looks like an enormous white pie, which is called cagliata.

Now it’s time for testing the cagliata. With a knife-like instrument, the master cheesemaker pulls out a bit of cagliata and dips it into hot water to see how it reacts. If the cheese melts and stretches as it should, he gives the OK for the final phase to begin. The cheese is divided into big pieces and placed in a wooden barrel. Hot water is poured into the barrel and the soon-to-be mozzarella is quickly mixed again—traditionally with a fig branch. If done manually, this last stage of production requires many hands because it must be done very rapidly: With skillful movements of both hands, the workers stretch and squeeze the mozzarella, and then using their fingers, cut off (“mozzare” means “to cut”) the cheese into equal balls and immerse it in cold water. Others entwine the mozzarella to give it the classic tracce shape.

Today in Italy, increasingly often, machines do the job of stirring and breaking the cagliata, as well as shaping the mozzarella in the final phase. The cheese is sold in a variety of shapes—the most common are round and called bocconi, and weigh up to a pound or more. The smaller size is called bocconcini; ciliegine are cherry-sized and perline (pearls) are even smaller. Trecce is the name for the traditionally braided shape. Whether the mozzarella is mixed and shaped by hand or machines, expert cheese making always requires the human eye, as well as the experience and judgment of skilled artisans.

 

A tavola

When presented with mouth-watering fresh mozzarella, many Italians don’t hesitate to eat it with their bare hands. Fresh mozzarella is delicious just as it is, or with a bit of salt and pepper, basil or fresh marjoram or oregano, and topped off with a good extra virgin olive oil. Insalata caprese is one of the most beloved ways of eating fresh mozzarella in Italy: that is, served with sliced fresh tomatoes and fresh basil.

The use of mozzarella in Italian cuisine is so extensive that any list is partial. In the central southern part of Italy where mozzarella is produced in abundance, you will find such dishes as lasagna and baked pasta of all kinds made with mozzarella. Numerous other pasta dishes such as rigatoni con melanzane (eggplant) or penne con olive e pomodoro fresco (olives and fresh tomato) use fresh mozzarella. Mozzarella is also used in crostini, panini, bruschette, focacce and mozzarella in carrozza. Throughout Italy, there is a family-style way of preparing meat—such as, veal scaloppine, chicken breast and even ground beef—called “alla pizzaiola, which includes mozzarella, tomatoes and oregano or other herbs. And, of course, every single day, mozzarella tops millions of pizzas all over the globe.

Our favorite mozzarella RECIPES: