One of my favorite summertime meals is mozzarella di bufala or burrata sliced and layered with a sweet heirloom tomato. That said, I must also plead guilty to eschewing the tomato and eating the cheese straight up with just a sprinkle of sea salt. I love my fresh cheeses and none more so than a good mozzarella di bufala or burrata, both classic pasta filata cheeses.
What are pasta filata cheeses you might ask? They are cheeses where the curds have been spun, stretched or pulled – filata literally translates to “spun” and pasta refers to the curds, or what will be the ‘paste’ of the cheese. This method of cheese production has its roots in the Middle East – cheeses in this style can be found in both Israel (e.g. Gilad) and Cyprus (e.g. Halloumi) – and flourished in Italy.
In addition to mozzarella and burrata, other cheeses that come under the pasta filata umbrella are: Scamorza, Caciocavallo and Provolone. Traditionally, these cheeses have been made in southern Italy – for example, Mozzarella is strongly associated with the areas around Salerno in Campania. All of the pasta filata cheeses that I have mentioned are cow or buffalo milk cheeses. As such, they are somewhat unusual in the southern Italian cheese canon where sheep milk cheese generally tends to predominate. The terrain in southern Italy is a challenging one in which to raise animals and sheep seem to be the best able to cope.
The real deal, as far as mozzarella is concerned, is made with milk from the water buffalo. At the conclusion of WWII in Italy, the retreating Nazi army slaughtered all of the water buffalo that were being used for mozzarella production. After the war, part of the recovery effort in Italy involved importing water buffalo from India to repopulate the herds supplying milk for mozzarella.
When it is made with buffalo milk (and adheres to certain other requirements), mozzarella is a DOP cheese. Buffalo are not indigenous to the region but were introduced to Italy in the 7th century to plow the marshlands south of Naples. After making little headway, these efforts were abandoned, along with the buffalo. Eventually, the buffalo were re-domesticated. Mozzarella production can be dated from the 12th century but became more wide-spread in the 18th century.
Buffalo milk is three times fattier than cows’ milk and imparts a different, more robust flavor profile. Another difference in the two milks – cows’ milk mozz gets firmer over time whereas buffalo mozz breaks down and gets runnier. I don’t know for sure why this is the case but I wonder whether it might have to do with differing levels of acidity?
Burrata is like mozzarella in that its curds are kneaded, stretched and shaped. Unlike mozzarella, however, burrata is shaped to form a hollow. This hollow is filled with uncooked curds and/or cream. Then, the cheese is tied off so that it looks like a little pouch or purse. The uncooked curds then continue to ferment, developing a flavor that is tangier and stronger than the exterior part of the cheese. That said, the filling in the pouch also lends a certain creaminess and sweetness, making it deliciously balanced.
If I am cooking at home – pizza or pasta, for example – I tend to use a locally-made cow milk mozzarella. It gives the creaminess and texture that I am looking for but I don’t have to worry that other ingredients will compromise its flavor. However, when I am preparing a meal where the cheese is going to be front and center, I prefer to use mozzarella di bufala or burrata. This is especially true when I am eating the cheese in a Caprese salad or straight up, with a sprinkling of salt and a drizzle of olive oil and/or vinegar!
Mary is a baker and cheesemonger at Formaggio Kitchen Cambridge.