FOOD DAY / WEDNESDAY / A Cheese Course / Lessons from the masters of mozzarella
MAKING MOZZARELLA is pretty straightforward. It isn't
injected with a mold to develop blue veins, nor sprayed with one to give it a
bloomy Brie-like rind. It takes only a few hours to make and tolerates no aging.
Here's how to make mozzarella: Take milk and curdle it - that is, separate
it into solid curds and liquid whey - by adding either a bacterial culture
(like yogurt) or an acid (like vinegar). Drain off the whey, and add hot water
to the curds. They will soon merge into a gooey mass which you then knead,
stretch and, finally, tear off into knobs. (The word "mozzarella" comes from
the Italian mozzare, "to tear.") There you have it: fresh homemade mozzarella.
When it comes to store-bought fresh mozzarella however, "homemade" is a
relative term. Although there are a handful of cheese makers in America who
make it starting with milk, the vast majority of fresh mozzarella - and
virtually all the fresh mozzarella in the New York area - is made from
commercially packaged curd. That is to say, the first half of the cheese-making
process (milk to curd) is done at a large curd-making plant, and it's only the
last half (curd to knobs) that is performed in the store.
It turns out, however, that mozzarella freshly made from commercial curd is
perfectly delicious. Moreover, even though almost all of New York's mozzarella
makers start with the same brand of curd, the results vary substantially, with
each mozzarella reflecting the artistry and preferences of its maker.
The fresh mozzarella found in Italian specialty shops and gourmet grocers,
a soft, bone-white blob that bleeds milk when you cut it and demands gentle
handling and quick consumption, is what's known as "high-moisture" mozzarella.
The bounceable, plastic-encased version in your grocer's dairy case is
"low-moisture" mozzarella, which, by contrast, can be tossed about, shipped
over long distances and held in the refrigerator for months. And any mozzarella
made from the milk of cows, which is to say all mozzarella made in America,
is, by Italian standards, fior di latte, "the flower of the milk." Real
mozzarella, an Italian dairyman will tell you, is mozzarella di bufala, made
from the milk of the cranky, smelly water buffalo that inhabit the swamplands
of Campania, the region surrounding Naples.
If mozzarella is so easy to make, why don't local latticini (dairy shops)
dispense with the curd and make their own from scratch? Lou DiPalo, with his
brother, Sal, the third-generation owner of Little Italy's DiPalo Dairy and
regarded as New York's dean of Italian cheeses, made no excuses. "My great
uncle made the curd, but it's unrealistic now to make it. I'm not ashamed to
say that we don't make the curd. I don't think anyone's made it here in 50
DiPalo went on to detail the hassle of trucking fresh milk into New York in
the quantities needed to make cheese. "You need a gallon of milk to make one
pound of cheese." He gestured around his tiny store, every inch of which is
occupied by Italian specialty items. "Where am I going to put all that milk?"
DiPalo's customers aren't suffering. The mozzarella he sells, made a few
times each day, is everything they could desire - juicy, creamy and tasting
unmistakably of milk. He starts with a high-quality curd, of course, and after
that, he said, "it's really the cheese maker who makes the difference." At the
store, only the DiPalo brothers and two employees are designated cheese makers.
Lou DiPalo himself demonstrated his craft in the store's closet-sized prep
area a few feet behind the counter. "Look," he explained while stirring hot
water into the curd with a steel paddle, "the curd is going to change on a
daily basis, depending on the temperature outside, what the cow was eating. A
master cheese maker adapts himself to the curd, how much hot water to add and
when to add it. How much to work at one time and how to knead it."
Indeed any shop that wants to sell top-notch mozzarella needs a master. At
Razzano's in Glen Cove, the master is Vincent Condello. "We have three
specialists," he said, "but I teach and supervise." He has particularly high
regard for one of his cheese makers, Cono Femminella. "Mozzarella is a product
you work with your hands, and he has the feeling - il tocco - the touch."
(Condello attributes this gift to the genes; Femminella is from Sassano, in
Campania, whereas Condello is from Reggio Calabria and thus has had to hone his
own cheese making through dint of practice over five decades.)
Lou Rubano, proprietor of Pastosa in Ozone Park, also a Campania native, is
another mozzarella master. Using the same curd and virtually the same
equipment as his friend Lou DiPalo, Rubano demonstrated a slightly different
technique. Like DiPalo, he cut slabs of curd by forcing them through a chitarra
("guitar"), a keyboard-sized frame strung with steel strings. But Rubano's
pieces of curd were smaller than DiPalo's. "The smaller the pieces," he said,
"the more tender the cheese, because the smaller they are, the less time they
spend in the hot water, and they lose less fat." (And, in fact, our sample of
Rubano's cheese did seem more tender than DiPalo's.) Whereas DiPalo worked the
mozzarella while it was submerged in hot water, Rubano ladled much of the water
out of the bowl when the mozzarella reached the right consistency.
One thing that DiPalo, Rubano and Condello have in common is that they all
use the same curd, made by Polly-O, the venerable Mineola-based dairy that was
bought in 1986 by Kraft. Polly-O's customers, who have long-standing - and
often, familial - ties to the company, sing the curd's praises, which doesn't
surprise Pat Guarella, the company's itinerant cheese maestro, who travels the
country preaching the gospel of fresh mozzarella and helping cheese makers
refine their craft. "Polly-O has been making mozzarella for over 100 years" he
said. "No one else has our expertise and knowledge."
In Polly-O's Campbell, N.Y., plant, pasteurized Grade A milk is pumped into
2,000-gallon stainless-steel vats along with a weak vinegar solution to curdle
it. The decision to use vinegar is a crucial one. There are two principle
methods of curdling milk: direct acidification, simply adding an acid like
vinegar or lemon juice to the milk; or cultured acidification, introducing a
living bacterial culture to produce lactic acid. The latter method, some cheese
makers contend, produces a more complex flavor, but it is trickier to control
because the longer the mixture sits, the more acidic it becomes. This means
that there's a relatively small window in which the mixture's acidity level is
optimal for cheese making. But by acidifying with vinegar, Polly-O is able to
produce a stable curd in which the pH level never varies, from the time it
leaves the factory to the end of its 21-day shelf life.
Next, rennet, a coagulant, is added to the acidified milk, and the mixture
is heated to 90 degrees. After 15 or 20 minutes, the milk takes on the
consistency of pudding as the curds and whey begin to separate. Two cheese
makers wield a giant chitarra to cut the curds into pieces, which are cooled,
divided into 45-pound lumps, bundled in cheesecloth and allowed to expel excess
whey. Now three pounds lighter, the lumps are vacuum-packed into
pillow-case-sized plastic bags and loaded onto the Polly-O truck.
Of the major brands of curd, Polly-O's is, by all accounts, the easiest to
work with, and it produces a mozzarella of consistent quality. But there are
cheese makers willing to sacrifice these virtues in the pursuit of nuance and
complexity. Chief among them is Paula Lambert, whose Dallas-based Mozzarella
Company supplies Texas gourmet shops and Internet-mail-order customers with a
variety of artisanal cheeses.
Lambert shuns commercial curd; her mozzarella starts with raw milk that is
pasteurized at the lowest possible safe temperature, "to keep most of the flora
[beneficial microorganisms] in the milk. Then we add cultures and rennet and
make our own curd." Lambert's use of culture, as opposed to direct
acidification (e.g. adding vinegar), is critical.
"The problem with direct acidification," she explained, "is that it doesn't
allow for any flavor development or bacterial growth." But the problem with
cultured acidification is that Lambert's cheese makers have to work quickly.
"Mozzarella will only stretch when it has a pH of 5.2," she said. "Since the
culture is constantly converting the milk's lactose into lactic acid, we only
have a short window in which to make the cheese."
Because the Mozzarella Company makes its own curd, it has to deal with
curd's unavoidable byproduct, whey. Luckily, Italian cheese makers long ago
came up with a use for whey: They cook it a second time to produce ricotta
(ricotta = "recooked"). But that's another story.
Twelve of us tasted five mozzarellas, three made earlier in the day at local
Italian specialty stores, one flown in from a producer in Texas and one
stable mozzarella from Trader Joe's. It was an imperfect test, as the "fresh"
mozzarellas varied in age from 2 hours to 7 hours, but, interestingly, only one
of the truly fresh cheeses scored higher than the firmer non-local ones.
(Maybe we've gotten too accustomed to the shrink-wrapped supermarket
mozzarella.) While there was one clear winner, all of the cheeses were
thoroughly enjoyed, and each one of them ranked as at least one taster's
Taking top honors was the fresh mozzarella made that morning at Pastosa (132-10
Crossbay Blvd., Ozone Park, 718-835-5439). Tasters liked its tenderness and
fresh milky taste. Next came Olivia mozzarella bought from Trader Joe's in
Plainview which, according to the label, is best eaten within three weeks,
followed by the Mozzarella Company (www.mozzco.com), whose cheese was made a
few days earlier and shipped overnight. Then, virtually tied, were that
morning's cheeses from Razzano's (286 Glen St., Glen
Cove, 516-676-3745) and DiPalo's (206 Grand St., Manhattan, 212-226-1033).
1. At his store in Little Italy, Lou DiPalo cuts into a 43-pound block of curd.
2. He slices the curd by pushing it through a chitarra (guitar) into the bowl.
3. After adding hot water to the curd, he stirs the mixture until the curd
4. When it reaches the consistency of taffy, the mozzarella is ready to be
5. DiPalo shapes the curd into 1-pound balls.
6. The balls are placed into a bowl of salted water.