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Tabula Rasa

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Tabula Rasa Photo: Ferndale Farmstead

By Rachael Lucas

In April, we stir into our vivacious spring selves. Seasonal grumps grow out of their glum funks, and lulled lazy winterers transcend their sopor.

Palates stray from warm, rich, hearty, comfort fare that we relied upon to carry us through the dark months to bright, fresh, cooling victuals that make us feel vibrant. We cease our cravings for heavy, bountiful cheese dishes like funky raclette, hefty fondue, and, my favorite winter plumpifier, ooey-gooey mac and cheese. In the brighter months, our bodies tell us to choose light, accessible fromage. As soon as spring tickles me, I buddy up with fresh mozzarella.   There are countless reasons to make fresh mozzarella a staple in our spring and summer fodder. One reason outweighs all others, however: it is the tabula rasa of cheese.

Mozzarella is a member of the Pasta Filata family, which literally translates to spun paste. Pasta Filata cheese curd gets heated and stretched and then sculpted into a form. Other examples of such cheeses are Provolone, Caciocavallo, and Scamorza. These bulbous classics, however, undergo an affinage process and treatment. Provolone and Caciocavallo can be aged for years, for example. Fresh mozzarella, conversely, should be devoured promptly. The sooner the better. After three or four days of idling in my fridge, it’s dead to me.

freshy Mozz with basil leaves 2 PicmonkeyClassic: fresh Mozzarella and fresh basil

Age allows time for acidification. Since fresh mozzarella lacks any kind of age, and its curds are basically washed in a salt brine (salt stifles acidification), its acid levels are quite low.  Now you know why fresh mozzarella is so sweet: it’s essentially a baby, soft and innocent. It is an ivory, globular orb, dulcet and fair.

Acidity is also what determines melt and stretch.   Lower levels of acid make for meltier cheese. This, mozzarella lovers, is why you can count on the fresh stuff to create photo-worthy cheese pulls.  

Because it is immature, fresh mozzarella is a high moisture cheese. This means less density. In fact, if you took a whole-milk, half pound ball of fresh mozzarella, it would have less fat per gram than the same weight chunk of Parmigiano Reggiano or Comte, which are partially skimmed. In cheese, fat is measured in dry matter, something which fresh mozzarella has a minimal amount. If you were to remove all its moisture, there would be limited solids. So eat up!

There are countless dishes for which we can use fresh mozzarella. Caprese salad is on many summer menus. With garden fresh tomatoes and basil, it makes for an easy, seasonal, crowd-pleasing treat. In fact, utilizing fresh mozzarella as your dish’s main protein allots for more plant-based fare to play a larger role. Melt it on outdoor grilled veggies; stuff peppers with it and roast it; make stracciatella for a creamy spread on crackers or toast with peaches. Chunk it up into your salads. Make a freaking Margherita Pizza! Fresh mozzarella brings ingredients together. It can be there to enhance and/or absorb flavors from whatever you choose to pair it with. Some foods are there to buttress other foods (think tofu). Fresh mozzarella can shoulder that weight.

Once you appreciate fresh mozzarella’s myriad uses, you may want to consider buying it as new as can be. This means sourcing it from stores and restaurants that make it in-house. In the Seattle area, there are a handful of places that make in-house mozzarella. The Metropolitan Market, Delaurenti, and Ballinger Thriftway (where I make it every Thursday!) are some accessible examples. If you can’t get your hands on some from one of these locations, Washington’s Ferndale Farmstead Creamery makes stellar pasta filata style cheese, including fresh cilegine (cherry-sized) mozzarella. I’ve seen it in lots of grocery stores. I love theirs. It’s made with Jersey cow’s milk, which gives it a golden yellow hue, and the flavor is pastoral. I enjoy its elevated salt content, as well. I prefer my mozzarella to be a little saltier than I often find it. A little salt enhances the elements of terroir in milk. No need for your mozzarella to be insipid.

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Once you appreciate fresh mozzarella’s myriad uses, you may want to consider buying it as new as can be. This means sourcing it from stores and restaurants that make it in-house. In the Seattle area, there are a handful of places that make in-house mozzarella. If you’re not near Seattle, try an internet search for cheese near your home city.

If you feel ambitious, I encourage you to try making your own. It isn’t difficult to make mozzarella curd; you merely need milk, an acidifying coagulant, heat, and a sanitary environment. If making the curd seems daunting, then go buy some curd from your mozzarella-making cheesemonger! I’ll sell you some (I don’t have time to make my own curd either, but I get perfectly yummy stuff that is easy to work with).  

If you want to try your hand at fresh mozzarella, here is my simple tutelage:

Once you have made (or purchased) your curd, you need to cut it into relatively uniform pieces. Larger curd will capture more moisture in your cheese. I chunk mine into ½-¾” pieces.

You will need three bowls: Fill one bowl half full of tepid water, set aside. A second bowl needs to have cold water and ice—this is your ice bath for freshly made balls. The cold water ensures that the ball maintains its form, rather than soggying into a flat blob. Set aside. The third bowl will remain empty until the water is at its appropriate temperature on the stove.

Salinate your mozzarella water—it should taste like sea water. If it doesn’t, add more salt. If it’s too salty, add water. You want a hint of salt to be evident in your cheese, but please leave some room for folks who like to add course salt to their caprese or who will also have salt in their sauce or the like.

Heat the saline water to 170-180 degrees on the stove. Once it reaches the right temperature, pour some into the bowl with tepid water. This is a segue for the curds to acclimate to the warm temperature, so as to not shock them in scalding water and create textural irregularity. The texture should be even throughout. Drop your cut curds into this mix of tepid/hot water. Let them set and adjust in the warm water for about a minute. Here you will notice the curds knitting together. From this warm tub, place them in the bowl with the 170/180 degree saline water. Manipulate the curds just enough to assist them in forming a coagulum. Once you notice the curds melding together and the paste softening, pull it out of the water. Allow gravity to pull the curd as you assist it in forming a ball. It is a process of pulling, stretching, smoothing out, and shaping. It looks a little like you’re playing with a slinky in slow motion. I am not very tactile, but when I learned to relax and let gravity pull the curd, my mozzarella game improved vastly. Once the curd lumps are nonexistent, and the paste looks shiny and smooth (a lot like bubble gum in mid-bubble blow), you are ready to pinch off balls. They can be any size—I like ovaline (egg) sized. As you pinch the mozzarella balls with your thumb and pointer finger, drop them in their ice bath. They can stay here until you are ready to put them into a storage container, during which time, pour the ice bath solution into it to keep the cheese in its secure environment. Or why not just leave them in their bath and put it in the fridge? So long as the balls are covered with liquid, they are snug and safe. For best results, eat them within a few days. After that, indulge at your own risk.

As soon as you learn how easy home-made mozzarella is, you might not want to ever buy it from the store again. A benefit to making your own is that you will decide how you like the texture and salt levels and adjust your cheesemaking accordingly. You can make little droplet-sized boops or massive grapefruit-sized orbs. Personal preference plays a profound role in determining what is desirable in cheese, and fresh mozzarella is no exception. One thing is for sure: the time for fresh mozzarella is upon us. Make it a goal to unabashedly indulge this year. You deserve it.

Editor’s note:   Rachael Lucas is an American Cheese Society Certified Cheese Professional (CCP).  You can most often find her cheesemongering in the Seattle area.  When she's not working with cheese, she's eating it, talking about it, reading about it, writing about it, and dreaming about it.  She can be reached with inquiries about fromage and food excitement in the Seattle area at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.  

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