It’s the most popular cheese in the U.S., and without it, pizza as we know it wouldn’t exist. We’re practically weaned on mozzarella. But what connects the string-cheese snacks we pack in school lunches to the sensuously creamy burrata served in the finest restaurants?
The simple melty mozzarella that we’re familiar with is the “low-moisture” variety, usually mass-produced in machines from cow’s milk and briefly dried. It keeps longer and melts beautifully, but is vastly different from fresh, handmade mozzarella that oozes whey and can make a pizza soupy.
Two mozzarella derivatives are particularly hot in restaurants for their lush texture: stracciatella and burrata. Stracciatella is mozzarella that’s been pulled and torn into very thin strands during the stretching process, giving it a distinct, soft texture (stracciare means “to shred,” not “to stretch,” which is allungare). It’s often soaked in heavy cream to accentuate the fresh texture. Burrata is simply cream-soaked stracciatella encased in a mozzarella “shell” to make a ball that oozes when cut.
Courtesy Obicà Mozzarella Bar and Fabrizio Ferri
The king of mozzarella is Italy’s Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP (Protected Designation of Origin), which is handmade using water buffalo milk from certified dairies in certain parts of the Campania and Lazio regions.
While other mozzarella di bufala is available throughout Italy and imported to the U.S., Mozzarella di Bufala Campana is the only type of mozzarella to have protected status, like Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano. It was granted Italian denominazione di origine controllata (DOC) status in 1993, and was given broader DOP status by the European Union in 2008.
Tip: If you’re using fresh mozzarella on pizza, slice it thinly a few hours ahead to let the whey leak out. Pat the slices dry before using.
It enjoys exalted status for a reason. Mozzarella di Bufala Campana is subtle, milky and fresh, but its distinct flavor and texture places it among the world’s great cheeses. The milk is the key. Water buffalo milk is much higher in fat and protein than cow’s milk. You wouldn’t want to drink water buffalo milk, but it’s ideal for cheese.
“Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP is savory, sapid and full of nuances of minerality,” says Raimondo Boggia of Obicà, an Italy-based “mozzarella bar” with locations in Los Angeles, New York City, Britain and Japan. “If you want to buy the real one at the supermarket, be sure that the whole statement, ‘Mozzarella di Bufala Campana DOP,’ is written on the package.”
“Compared to other cheeses called mozzarella, it’s much more complex, more gamy, and when made by skilled cheese makers, it has a very unique texture as well.”
While the production is relatively simple, several factors distinguish authentic Mozzarella di Bufala Campana from mass-produced versions of the cheese.
“The milk, of course, has to be 100% water buffalo, but also the grass and hay [that] the animals eat is very important, as are the enzymes and salts the cheese maker puts in the milk to make it a curd,” says Boggia. “These details are as secret as the blend of salt and herbs used for prosciutto or salame, or the dosage added to a Champagne.”
If you’re lucky enough to find someone who regularly brings in freshly made Mozzarella di Bufala Campana, it’s important to inquire about the production dates and storage methods. A reliable vendor, for example, ensures proper storage and quick turnover. (Much of the Mozzarella di Bufala Campana sold in large markets is usually weeks past production and may have been frozen.) In many cases, you may be better off finding a local producer of fresh cow-milk mozzarella; buy a range of fresh mozzarellas and have a taste test.
Mozzarella affumicata is smoked mozzarella
Bocconcini is small balls of fresh mozzarella
Ovolini is a smaller version of bocconcini
Treccia is braided mozzarella
Justin Bazdarich, chef at New York City’s Speedy Romeo, makes mozzarella daily for the restaurant.
“I love great domestic mozzarella!” he says, adding, “I find that I prefer the light, creamy, velvety flavor of domestic mozz. Sometimes the imported styles are a bit tangy and can be a little aggressive with other ingredients in a dish. I press our curd through a coarse wire rack that gives it more texture and allows the salt to penetrate. We also do all the kneading under hot water to add more moisture and a softer feel. Wherever it’s from, I prefer to buy mozz in a liquid—I find it has a softer texture than the ones in a Cryovac package.”
Tip: When buying low-moisture mozzarella to melt, skip the low-fat or “part-skim” versions. They don’t melt as well as whole-milk mozzarella, and they also tend to pull away in sheets rather than ooze into stringy goodness.
If possible, it’s best to eat fresh mozzarella on the day it was made without refrigerating it. If you need to keep it for a while, refrigerate it in the liquid it came in. You can also submerge it in salted milk (1 teaspoon per cup). Place the mozzarella in as small a container as possible, and keep it for no more than three days after production, no matter what the sell by date on the package says. Before you serve it, allow for three hours to let the cheese come to room temperature.
How to Pair Wine With Mozzarella
When pairing wine with mozzarella, consider whether you are eating it unadorned or as part of a dish with other components to take into account.
“I suggest trying it alone with an Italian Brut Nature metodo classico sparkling wine—Franciacorta, Trento, or Aversa Asprinio, which comes from Campania, mozzarella’s region of origin,” Boggia says. “I also love it with Furore Bianco from Marisa Cuomo, a blend of Falanghina and Biancolella, two indigenous grapes from Campania. When it’s served with tomato or pizza, try a crisp, medium-bodied red like Chianti Classico Riserva or Morellino di Scansano.
“Stracciatella and burrata, more creamy and rich than Mozzarella di Bufala, pair very well with Chardonnay, especially when served with caviar, bottarga or white truffle. Among the indigenous Italian grapes, try it with Erbaluce di Caluso or a Rosa del Golfo from Puglia.”
Speedy Romeo’s Bazdarich says, “I love mozzarella with this rare Italian grape called Mataòssu. It ferments naturally to be buttery, but without being fatty like some oaked Chardonnays. It enhances the flavor of the cheese without cutting it like an overly acidic wine.”
Recipe: Winter Squash, Radicchio, and Fresh Mozzarella Salad
(Insalata di Zucca, Radicchio, e Mozzarella)
This salad, equally suitable as an appetizer or entrée, is a great alternative to Caprese salad in winter, when tomatoes are sad.
- 1 pound radicchio
- 2 pounds winter squash (delicata, kabocha, acorn or red kuri)
- ½ cup extra-virgin olive oil, divided
- Salt, to taste
- 1 pound fresh mozzarella, torn into small chunks
- Traditional balsamic vinegar of Modena (Aceto Balsamico Tradizionale di Modena), for sprinkling
Cut radicchio lengthwise in quarters or halves. Set aside. Preheat oven to 425°F. Cut squash into half-moons. Slice off ends of squash, halve lengthwise, remove seeds and stringy bits, and slice into ½-inch crescents. Brush or toss squash and radicchio with just enough olive oil to coat (about ¼ cup total). Salt lightly.
Spread in single layer on baking sheet. Cook for 30 minutes, turning halfway through (should be tender, with radicchio lightly charred at edges).
Cut and discard radicchio cores, and separate leaves. Divide squash and radicchio among plates and top with mozzarella (tucking the cheese in, so the heat softens it). Sprinkle with 1 tablespoon olive oil and 1 teaspoon traditional balsamic vinegar per plate. Serves 4 as main dish, 8 as appetizer
Cascina delle Rose 2013 Barbera d’Alba; $25, 90 points. Fresh and refined, this delightful, easy-drinking wine opens with scents of rose, woodland berry and a whiff of dark cooking spice. The vibrant, savory palate offers juicy red cherry, raspberry and white pepper alongside bright acidity and polished tannins. Drink through 2018.