August tomatoes have me thinking about my first days in the world of cheese, when imported exotic mozzarella di bufala was novel on the counter, and few customers had heard of the spun-cream sacks called burrata. Either was perfectly suited to a family style first course, the entire wobbly ball plopped down on a platter, surrounded by tiny yellow cherry tomatoes and zaggy striped Green Zebras. A healthy glug of olive oil, and a shower of kosher salt, and dinner was served.
Mozzarella di bufala and burrata represented a Cheese 201 advancement from plain old fresh mozzarella, though in truth locally made, freshly pulled mozzarella was itself a great leap forward from the low moisture blocks I used to make eggplant parm in college. These days, with both imported and fresh local mozzarella increasingly available, should imported Italian mozzarella still be considered the reigning queen of fresh cheese?
It sure was a decade and longer ago, when Italian meant quality, and cheesemongers took great pains to boast how their cheeses were flown in from southern Italy's Campania or Puglia regions. But these days I wouldn't be so quick to make that assumption.
Italian mozzarella is typically made by culturing milk, meaning lactic acid bacteria is added at the beginning of the cheese-making process to convert sugar into acid, which coagulates milk proteins. The resulting flavor has a pleasant sour cream twang undercutting pure, rich cream notes. Many (though not all) American mozzarellas, with a nod to both national flavor preferences and production efficiency, are made using citric acid or vinegar instead. The cheese is made faster, and as a result has a mild, sweet, innocuous flavor.
There were several things about mozz I didn't know as a cheese newbie. I didn't know it wasn't supposed to be mushy. I thought mushy meant rich, creamy and oozingly delicious. In fact, mozzarella should have a tight, thin skin that contains the ball. It should hold its shape when cut. Even burrata, which contains scraps of mozzarella bits suspended in cream inside the ball, should have a form.
I also didn't realize that the typical starter cultures of Italian mozzarella would continue to convert lactose into lactic acid, and, over time, would likely contribute increasing tart and eventually sour flavors to the cheese. Not to mention the fact that importing is a tricky business, prone to delays, FDA inspections, and the realities of moving a highly perishable cheese thousands of miles before it hits U.S. soil. For retailers and cheese eaters on the West Coast you need to double that distance.
All of which is to say that when it comes to fresh mozzarella, pedigree isn't everything—freshness matters just as much. A pristine ball of Italian mozzarella di bufala may turn sour and chewy by the time it reaches an American plate. Local mozzarella doesn't have these problems to the same degree.
It seems that many of the country's leading cheese retailers are having the same realization I am, and are increasingly looking to local cheese makers for their mozzarella line-up. I don't just mean American makers, mind you, because a New Jersey maker is as far from San Francisco as an Italian one is from New York. So the next time you're shopping for mozz, don't automatically assume that the imported Italian kind is your best bet.
American Cow's Milk Mozzarella to Know
I've never seen Italian cow's milk mozzarella sold in the States. There's just no point in it. The makers that could export it are large and industrial enough that regional American producers are likely producing finer cheeses. On the West Coast there are several standouts, most notably Pt. Reyes Farmstead Cheese Company, which makes a cultured mozzarella in the Italian tradition and limits its sales geographically. Berkeley's Belfiore and LA's DiStefano are reliably good options as well. On the East Coast, Lioni (NJ), Calabro (CT), Maplebrook (VT), and Di Palo (NYC) are brands to look for.
American Burrata to Know
10 years ago, imported burrata was your only option. Today, several producers across the States make exceptional versions. Though many think burrata is made with buffalo milk, it's actually made with cow, even in Italy, which makes for an easy cheese for a cheese maker to add to their repertoire.
Imagine a hollowed-out ball of impeccably fresh mozzarella filled with silky flecks of cheese suspended in cream. Though the liquid in burrata isn't actually cream—it's acidulated milk, one that oozes out in a buttery lava flow when the cheese is cut open. American producers bet that most consumers would appreciate an amped-up, extra creamy, unusually buttery mozzarella-type cheese, and set out to produce one that could reach the retail market at nearly half the price of imported versions, often within two to three days of production. With American renditions like supermarket staple Bel Gioioso on up to specialty brands Di Stefano, Gioia, Lioni, and Maplebrook, few shops bother to carry imported burrata anymore.
But What About Buffalo Mozzarella?
Mozzarella di bufala is the last great conundrum on the imported fresh cheese front. While several Americans have tried to build domestic water buffalo farms, no one has succeeded in keeping one open for any length of time. A fabulous New York Times article in 2012 called it the "great white whale of American cheesemaking."
Ramini Mozzarella in Tomales, CA is the latest attempt to make it work, but even this producer's nascent success centers around a $35 per pound mozzarella that is currently sold to local restaurants. But for an ingenious alternative to potentially soured and mushy Italian mozzarella di bufala, consider the relatively new Annabella buffalo mozz produced in Colombia. Its supply chain into the States via Miami gets cheese to market as quickly as three days from production, and its distribution network here includes national supermarkets such as Whole Foods, Central Market, Lucky's, and even Kroger. With twice the fat of cow milk, fresh buffalo mozzarella manages a plump, bulging texture that weeps sweet, rich, grassy whey when sliced. The gamey notes often attributed to the milk are in fact a sign of its age, and another reason to consider trying the alternatives.