How fresh is fresh mozzarella?

Anywhere from a few minutes to a few weeks old. "Fresh" mozzarella has come to connote that soft, white blob that bleeds milk when you cut into it. It is also known as "high-moisture" mozzarella to distinguish it from the bounceable, plastic-encased "low-moisture" mozzarella in the supermarket dairy case which is designed to be shipped over long distances and held in the refrigerator for months.

In the olden days, all mozzarella was fresh. In Southern Italy, the climate is too hot for most aged cheeses (which need a few months of cool temperature) and so dairymen learned to make fresh cheeses such as mozzarella and ricotta.

To make mozzarella, you separate milk into curds and whey by adding either an acid or a culture. The whey can be recooked to make ricotta (ricotta means "recooked"), while the curds are cut into pieces and immersed in hot water where they dissolve into a soft mass. The cheesemaker then kneads and stretches the mass until it is properly elastic, then he breaks off pieces (mozzare means "to cut off") and immerses them in salted water. The cheese is ready to eat, and will only deteriorate in taste and texture as time goes by.

Here in the United States, almost no one makes mozzarella starting with milk: Instead they start with a shelf-stable commercial curd. The whole process from curd to cheese takes less than 30 minutes and that's why busy Italian markets can make mozzarella a few times a day.

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Mozzarella can live in water at room temperature for a few hours, but after that it needs to be refrigerated. Sadly, the refrigerator robs it of tenderness - and that is the fate of mozzarella that is sold refrigerated. Many stores sell "fresh" mozzarella that has a sell-by date a few weeks in the future. This can often be a tasty product, but it's not really fresh.

More on rye bread

In the wake of my column last month about rye bread and why it's so hard to get a good, crisp-crusted one, many readers called and wrote to direct me to their favorite rye breads.

I've run all of them down and have to admit that many of the recommended breads struck me as pretty ordinary. The best rye bread I found - and it was fantastic - was recommended by Bonnie Newman of Merrick. It is made by Oven Artisans, of Manhattan, and was sold at the Garden City and Roslyn-North Hills farmers markets. It will be sold again in the spring, when the markets reopen. As yet, Oven Artisans has no retail outlet on Long Island.

A close second was the Eli's Jewish rye sold at Fairway in Plainview, and a close third was Fairway's own light-seeded rye. In fact, you could do far worse than Fairway's third candidate, presliced sour rye from Bread Alone.