Cutting the Cheese -- Mozzarella
Take milk, any milk (although, for this purpose, some milk is decidedly better than other milk), acidify it to make it curdle, throw the curds in hot water, stretch the hot cheesy mass, cut it into pieces (the defining step), and you have Mozzarella. Easy? Not quite!
The difficulty, as usual, is in the details. First, it's the milk. Cows' milk works, but bufala (one "f") milk is decidedly better. But what's a bufala? What is surely isn't is what most Americans think of -- that hulking, hump-shouldered beast that once roamed the American plains by the millions until slaughtered indiscriminately by politically-incorrect, gun-toting white and red men. (Before you get mad, it's well established that those red men indiscriminately wasted the American bison ("buffalo") long before those white men showed up to show them how to do it more efficiently with guns. But thatís a story for another day.)
At any rate, the American bison is an entirely separate species from the "bufalo" (one "f") that roams the swampy lowlands of southern Italy. (Wait! -- "Bufala"? -- "Bufalo"? The female, the "bufala", of course, produces the milk. The male form "bufalo" is used to define the species. Don't try to milk the males -- only very few of them will like it.) Bufala milk has, on average, 60 to 80 percent more butterfat than cows milk, and maybe 10 percent more protein. Its also much whiter, so one way of separating real Mozzarella di bufala from cow-milk fakes is by the whiteness of the authentic product: bufala milk has much less carotene than cow milk. Carotene helps us to make vitamin A, but don't worry, although there's less carotene, bufala milk contains a lot more vitamin a than cow milk -- pre-made for us by the bufala. Whether you like Mozzarella di bufala or plain old cow milk Mozzarella or one of the newly marketed exotics is a matter of taste, but most Italians, and especially southern Italians, will tell you that if it ain't bufala it ain't mozzarella. One thing is certain: if it's not labeled "di bufala" it's going to be the cheaper cow variety, and that's also true on restaurant menus. (The reverse, of course, is not true. Food cops try to keep makers and sellers honest, but enforcement is better in some markets than others. False labeling is a fine art, so it's possible, just possible, that "di bufala" on a label or menu might not mean it's "di bufala" on your plate.
Freshness is also important. Milk, whatever kind, should never be more than two days out of the beast before it's made into Mozzarella, and it's better if milk is made into cheese the same day it first hits the air. After the cheese is made, timing is also important. Some purists say it should never be allowed to cool -- eat it warm straight from the cheese-makers hands. Finicky eaters want their Mozzarella before the sun first sets on it. A day more is the limit if you want to call Mozzarella fresh. One or two days later and it's only suitable for melting into something else -- if it hasn't gone off completely. (There's another familiar product -- "low moisture Mozzarella" -- that is widely sold for cooking. We'll get to that.)
Making milk into Mozzarella can be a really quick process. There are two ways of acidifying the milk -- both are "natural" processes, but on is slightly "more natural" and the results are slightly different. Most Mozzarella is acidified by the simple expedient of adding an acidic liquid, usually dilute white vinegar, to make the milk curdle. Some artisan cheese-makers, and a few industrial makers do it by adding rennet (or renit, or even runnit), a compound that is found in the stomachs of infant and toddler ruminants. Here's the slight difference in results: adding acid does nothing to the lactose in milk; rennet breaks down lactose to make the acid that curdles the cheese, so Mozzarella or any other cheese made with rennet is handled more easily by folks who are lactose intolerant. (There is a vegetable substitute for rennet, an herb in the coffee family called Cheese Rennet or Lady's Bedstraw, for those who don't want meat products -- but, hey, that cheese your munching is an animal product, after all.) Some makers use a mixture of rennet and vinegar, because the vinegar will curdle the milk, but rennet seems to be a better coagulant so the process is a little faster depending on how much rennet is used. You donít even have to use either acid or rennet -- you can just inoculate the milk with a little bit of the last batch of cheese or yesterday's whey. Whatever acidifies the cheese, the whole curdling/coagulating process should take only three to five hours.
The curds are scooped or sieved out and thrown into really hot water. (The whey is "recooked" to make "ricotta" -- which, of course, only means "recooked". That's yet another whole different story.) After a few minutes in the hot water, almost boiling -- at least 185 or so degrees Fahrenheit or 85 C. -- the curds should stick together, and it's time to start stretching. This is really most often done by machine, but it's much better if done by hand. Machines just donít have the delicacy to avoid compressing the strands that develop as the protein is aligned or the good sense(s) to know when it's time to stop. It has to be done quickly, before the mass cools -- stretch and fold repeatedly until it's just the right shiny consistency. And this is also something that is best judged by feel by expert, or at least educated, human hands. A good human cheese stretcher uses feel, vision, and smell to tell when the cheese is just right for cutting.
"Mozzatura" or cutting the cheese is what makes it Mozzarella: a "mozzarella", in Italian, is a "little cut". For hand-made Mozzarella, two workers take hold of part of the stretched and still hot mass. One of the workers forms a ball of cheese at the end of the mass and pinches it off with his or her fingers -- that's the "cutting". It can also be done with a slicing motion with a really sharp knife, and, in fact, it's most often done by a machine that just chops off pieces, but the quality suffers when knives and choppers compress protein strands. An experienced Mozzarella consumer can tell how it was done just by looking at the product. The balls can be various sizes down to the small "cherries" (about 1/2 ounce or 15 grams) up to one pound or 1/2 kilogram. Sometimes simple braids are also made at this point. The 1/2 kilo size ball is supposed to be best, because it has the best ratio of surface area to weight for the next step, but you may need help to eat that much Mozzarella -- or maybe not.
The next step is the salting and cooling. These occur simultaneously when the newly formed balls or braids are dropped into cold salted water. It should be just enough to form a thin skin on the ball during the time it takes to cool the cheese. When the cheese is just cool -- not cold -- it needs to be taken out and the skin should be "just right". Water temperature and salt concentration are both obviously critical, but it always seems to be the amount of salt that is the bone of contention among cheese-makers.
As soon as the ball is out of the brine, it's ready to eat. Degradation starts immediately, so hurry! If you must wait before eating, submerge the balls in fresh unsalted water, but only for a day or two at most.
Make your own: If you live in Italy, why bother. Even if you live in any American or Western European city, why bother. Just head for the local upscale supermarket or Italian specialty store and buy a reasonably good fresh Mozzarella. In some places, you can even get fresh Italian Mozzarella di bufala, flown in for your delectations and delivered to your doorstep: for example, http://mozzarellashop.co.uk/index.htm. But if you ever find yourself isolated from fresh supplies, there are dozens of Internet suppliers of the proper ingredients to make home-made Mozzarella. Some can be found at : http://www.google.com/search?num=100&hl=en&newwindow=1&client=googlet&q=%22cheese+making+kit%22&btnG=Google+Search. You can also buy any one of dozens of cheese making books and assemble the needed ingredients locally -- remember, the farther away from "civilization" you are, the more likely you are to find good cheese-making stuff. In most American cities you can find, either at the upscale supermarkets or at Italian specialty shops, packaged or fresh Mozzarella curd. You just follow a recipe and make your own fresh Mozzarella. (Some recipes using store-bought curd are at http://www.epicurious.com/e_eating/e07_mozzarella/howto.html and http://www.wwlp.com/news/segments/recipes/mozzarella.html and http://www.wlos.com/news/recipes/abtech/freshmozzarella.htm.)
If you want to know more about Mozzarella, there are many English and Italian language web sites that go into more detail than you probably ever will need. Two good Italian sites, with illustrative pictures, are at http://www.gamberorosso.it/mozzarella/mozzarella1.asp and http://www.ips.it/scuola/concorso_99/mozzarella/Trasfor/tecno/gener.htm. An interesting English language site is at http://www.milkingredients.ca/DCP/article_e.asp?catid=145&page=741.
Beasts: How did those bufale and bufali (feminine and masculine plural forms) get to Italy in the first place. The legendary version is that Antony and Cleopatra ate Mozzarella while floating down the Nile to regain their strength for their next encounter and that Anthony sent home some beasts for future cheese feasts (which, of course, he never got to enjoy.) Well, there apparently already were the right kind of bufalo (the Indian water bufalo, not the Aftican) in Egypt by that time, but there is no evidence that Mozzarella was made or that Antony sent home any beasts. (If Mozzarella was made in ancient Egypt, the ancient Egyptians quite sensibly ate up the evidence.) There is physical evidence (bones and coprolites -- look it up) that Indian water bufalo were being raised in Italy by the late Middle Ages. And written accounts are extant of 13th century monks serving up Mozzarella made from bufala milk in the San Lorenzo monastery in Capua. Bufalo raising and Mozzarella making went large scale in the 17th century when large bufalare, bufalo pastures, took over marshy lowlands from Rome southward. (It also didn't take long for the bufalo to adapt to drier and colder conditions -- by the time Buffalo Bill Cody's "Wild West Exhibition and Congress of Rough Riders of the World" got to Edinburgh and Glasgow in 1904 there were already viably herds as far north as Scotland.) If you really must know everything about the bufala that makes the milk that makes the cheese, try these Internet sites: http://ww2.netnitco.net/users/djligda/waterbuf.htm and http://www.wildchannel.com/features/waterbuff1.htm.
P.S.: "Low Moisture" Mozarella, the kind of rubbery (but still tasty) cheese that we slice or grate for Pizzas in the US, is what you get if you just keep stretching and stretching and then boil longer than you would for fresh Mozzarella. This "overprocessing" gets the water content down well below 48 percent, and its then "low moisture" Mozzarella.
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