Style Highlight: Pasta Filata | culture: the word on cheese
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Style Highlight: Pasta Filata

Chapel Hill Creamery's Fresh mozzarella, sliced and on brown paper next to knife

What do string cheese, mozzarella, and Queso Oaxaca have in common? They’re all pasta filata cheeses. These stretchy, typically mild, and often buttery cheeses are favorites for snacking and cooking.

Spun Gold

In Italian, pasta filata means “spun paste,” aptly named because these cheeses undergo a unique stretching process that gives them a characteristically stringy, stretchy quality. The cheesemaking process for pasta filata–type cheeses begins with the customary steps: The milk is curdled, the curds are cut into pieces, and the whey is drained off.

Here’s where it gets fun. The next stage is the filatura (spinning). Curds are steeped in a bath of very hot whey or water. When they begin to float, it’s time to drain off the liquid. The curds are then mixed and kneaded until they achieve a soft, stringy texture. The mass is then divided into smaller cheeses, often by forming balls or pulling out a thick strand and chopping it, much like a taffy pull.

Some cheeses, such as provolone or caciocavallo, will undergo further processing via aging, brining, or smoking. In the case of mozzarella or burrata, it’s ready to eat right away—if possible, the cheese should be eaten within five days, the sooner the tastier.

Braided Caciocavera cheese on board with pairing knife

This braided caciocavera cheese is pulls apart like a child’s favorite string cheese, but has a buttery decadence that’s worth saving for adults.

The Key Player

Mozzarella is as decadent as butter but far less rich, and it’s essentially the starting point for many other filata cheeses. Made from cow’s or buffalo’s milk, mozzarella is a specialty of Campania, Italy, but there are many great producers right here in the U.S. If purchasing mozzarella packed in whey water, store leftovers in the same liquid. Rinse them in water and pat dry before using.

Burrata, which means “buttery,” is a fresh combination of mozzarella, stracciatella, and cream. Unlike mozzarella, burrata hollows during forming. The cavity is packed with uncooked curds and/or cream, and the cheese is tied off like a pouch. The uncooked curds ferment further, developing a flavor that is tangier and richer than the exterior of the cheese. Slice through the mozzarella-esque exterior and savor the velvety, sweet filling of milky cheese inside.

Patience Is a Virtue

Eating cheese straight from the production line is divine, but some derivative cheeses are worth a little wait.

Scamorza Affumicata is a dried mozzarella that is smoked. It’s tied about 2/3 of the way toward the top, forming a “neck,” and is suspended. This method of ripening has given scamorza its name, which in southern Italy means “beheaded.” When the cheese droops from hanging by its own weight, it takes on a gourd-like shape. It is then dried and smoked with cherry wood. This creates a slightly sweet, roasted flavor to the now gently crumbly cheese.

Caciocavallo has a fascinating history. It originated in the southern regions of Italy in the 14th century and is thought to be a descendant of the ancient Roman cheeses. It earns its name, roughly translated as “cheese on horseback,” from the way duos of gourd-shaped cheeses were slung like saddlebags over horses’ flanks centuries ago, when trade and sustenance often traveled along with the rider. It is believed that caciocavallo was once made from mare’s milk, but today it is sourced from cow’s milk. Rather than hanging from horses, caciocavallo is now slung across a wooden board. With a nuttier, toastier flavor than most of its filata relatives, caciocavallo is a distinctive cheese not to be missed.

Queso Oaxaca is a pasta filata cheese from Mexico thought to be inspired by the filata cheese-making habits of the Dominican monks that settled there. Semi-soft and white, this Hispanic-style cheese melts beautifully. Rather than being pulled into thick ropes like other pasta filatas, Oaxaca is stretched into thinner bands that are then rolled up like a ball of yarn.

Karoun string cheese with fennel seeds

Karoun’s braided string cheese.

To Chill or Not to Chill?

With mozzarella, that is the question. Many chefs and cheesemakers swear by freshly made cheese, typically less than three hours old. We all know that cheese should come to room temp before serving, but many mozzaheads feel that refrigerating mozzarella at all, even for a few hours, leads to big trouble in both the taste and texture departments. Refrigerated mozzarella holds onto its moisture better, but this isn’t necessarily a good thing—it can water down the cheese and overly tense the stringy layers.

Alas, not everyone has an Italian cheesemaker in the kitchen, so most of us will wind up chilling our cheese. The folks at the Serious Eats Food Lab have developed a strategy for curbing the effects of refrigeration. Before enjoying a fresh mozzarella from the fridge, give it an hour-long soak in a warm, salted milk bath. This will redistribute some of the moisture and reconstitute the cheese’s fine attributes.

(Not) Pretty in Pink

A word on microbial spoilage: Unfortunately, fresh milk cheeses are notorious for going funky fast. If your cheese turns pink, get rid of it. Common blue/green and white/grey molds can usually be cut away and the remainder of the cheese safely eaten, but don’t mess with pink or black mold that appears on cheese. That kind of mold is spore-heavy, and can spread throughout the cheese even when cut away from the surface.

A Lotta Filata Pairings

Unless you’re three, you probably don’t want to just eat a hunk of mozzarella or provolone by itself. Here are some more adult ways to enjoy pasta filata cheeses.

  • Pair Queso Oaxaca with an un-oaked California Chardonnay.This wine, which has substantial body and firm acidity, will balance the cheese.
  • These cheeses don’t need a lot of fuss to shine. Serve whole burrata straight-up with a little salt or on a small plate of good olive oil, cracked pepper, and rosemary.
  • These cheeses lend themselves to recipes beautifully. Try these Mini Pizzas with Pan-roasted Rosemary Potatoes, Sausage, and Smoked Scamorza. We like homemade pizza crust, but feel free to use pre-made. The results will still be fabulous.
Fresh mozzarella sliced on brown paper

Chapel Hill Creamery’s fresh mozzarella.

Jessica Hazard

Jessie Hazard is an online editorial intern for culture. Back in the day, Jessie’s Easybake Oven was cranking out masterpieces anytime her parents would spring for the cake mix. She’s been a dedicated home cook and foodie ever since, with cheese ranking highest on her ingredient list. Jessie recently moved from Tennessee to Boston to attend BU, so she’s usually studying for her MLA in Gastronomy. Otherwise, she spends her time agape in the aisles of her new hometown’s amazing specialty food markets (if she hasn’t already gotten lost on the subway en route to them.)

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