Italy’s most famous cheese, mozzarella is a soft, mild, fresh white cheese. While best known as a grated topping for our favourite pizzas, true Italian mozzarella has so much more flavour and complexity to offer. If you’ve ever tasted a melt-in-your-mouth ball of “Mozzarella di Bufala Campana” (DOP) perhaps no further explanation is needed.
History and Production
According to legend, mozzarella was first made near Naples when cheese curds accidentally fell into a pail of hot water. There may be some truth to this tale, as mozzarella is indeed made using a special hot whey bath technique called pasta filata (Italian for “spun paste”). With the pasta filata process, cheese curds are dipped in hot whey and kneaded and stretched until they become smooth, shiny and pliable. Just like a baker making bread dough, the cheese maker then pulls and lops off strands of cheese, forming individual mozzarellas. This stretched-curd technique is also used to make other stringy Italian varieties such as provolone and caciocavallo.
Though today’s mozzarella is most often made with partially skimmed or whole cow’s milk, the original cheese was made only from the milk of water buffalos. It’s not certain when or how water buffalos were first introduced to Italy, but one story says Marc Antony brought them from Egypt – complete with mozzarella cheese making instructions – as a gift for Caesar.
Whatever the correct explanation, water buffalos became a familiar sight in the southern Italian countryside where they were used for ploughing. By the sixteenth century, farmers began using water buffalo milk to make cheese, but with no pasteurisation, refrigeration, or transport, the small quantities they produced seldom left the south. By the second half of the eighteenth century, mozzarella became more widespread, eventually reaching northern Italy where inferior versions were being made with cow’s milk.
Modern mozzarella comes in two basic styles we’ll call “regular” and “fresh.”
Regular: The familiar type found at most supermarkets, this cow’s milk mozzarella is generally produced in huge factories. Drier than the fresh version, it has a low moisture content (less than 50%) and a semi-soft, elastic (almost rubbery) texture. The cheese is quite mild, but not as delicately flavoured or textured as fresh mozzarella.
With excellent melting qualities, regular mozzarella is favoured for grating and cooking, especially in classic Italian dishes like pizza and lasagne. Commercial mozzarella is vacuum-packaged for longer shelf and will keep in the refrigerator for about four weeks.
Fresh: Sold in tubs of whey or water, fresh mozzarella is usually rolled into ball shapes of various sizes. The porcelain white cheese has a very thin rind, and when cut, oozes with milky freshness and fluidity. It is much softer and more delicately sweet in flavour than its regular counterpart.
When made with cow’s milk, fresh mozzarella is distinguished by the label “fior di latte.” However, it is widely agreed that the best and most highly prized fresh mozzarella is “mozzarella di bufala” (buffalo mozzarella). The authentic “Mozzarella di Bufala Campana” is made according to age-old traditions in only seven provinces of south-central Italy. It is protected by European DOP (Denominazione d’Origine Protetta) and wrapped with its official logo and name.
Fresh Mozzarella di Bufala is made to be eaten with a few days (some say within a few hours!) of its production. One of the most simple and delicious preparations involves nothing more than drizzling the sliced cheese with olive oil and a sprinkling of freshly cracked black pepper. In the classic Italian Insalata Caprese, mozzarella is paired with sliced tomatoes and fresh basil.
Fresh mozzarella is also an essential ingredient in many cooked recipes, particularly pasta, meat, and vegetable dishes like Melanzane alla Parmigiana (eggplant parmesan). In Campania, fresh mozzarella is sandwiched between two slices of bread, battered and fried to prepare a richly delicious Mozzarella in Carozza (mozzarella in a carriage). No matter how you enjoy or prepare it, mozzarella is smooth, fresh, milky and so impossible to resist.