The Great Mozzarella Debate

August tomatoes have me thinking about my first days in 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.

Back then, imported was king. The way we talked about quality was to boast that cheeses had been air shipped from southern Italy’s Campagna or Puglia regions, and the way consumers knew it was good was to confirm it was Italian. These days I wouldn’t be so quick to make this assumption. Italian mozzarella is typically made by culturing the milk, meaning lactic acid bacteria is added at the beginning of the cheese making process to convert sugar into acid and commence the coagulation of the milk. The resulting flavor has a pleasant sour cream twang undercutting pure, rich cream notes. Many American mozzarellas, with a nod to both national flavor preferences and production efficiency, are made using citric acid or vinegar. The  cheese is made faster, with 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 spillingly 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 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, this would likely contribute increasing tart and eventually sour flavors. Not to mention the fact that import 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. 

It seems that many of the country’s leading cheese retailers are having the same realization I am and looking to regional 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.  I’ve never seen Italian cow’s milk mozzarella sold in the States. There’s just no point. The makers that could export are large and industrial enough that regional American producers are likely producing a finer cheese. On the West Coast there are several stand outs, 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 L.A.’s DiStefano are reliably good options as well. On the East Coast Lioni (NJ), Calabro (CT) and Maplebrook (VT) are brands to look for. 

Burrata is the cheese that’s experienced a real renaissance. Ten years ago import was the only option. Today, there are several producers across the States making exceptional burrata. Many folks think this cheese is made of buffalo milk—it’s not. Even in Italy it’s made of cow’s milk, and this makes it an easy possibility for production here. Imagine a hollowed out ball of impeccably fresh mozzarella filled with silky flecks of cheese and cream. Traditionally there is no actual cream in the cheese, but the acidification produces a milky broth that does in fact spill from the cheese when cut. 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. From supermarket staple Bel Gioioso on up to specialty brands Di Stefano, Gioia, Lioni and Maplebrook—few shops bother to carry an imported burrata anymore. 

Mozzarella di bufala is the last great conundrum on the imported fresh cheese front. A domestic water buffalo farm is something that several have attempted but no one has succeeded in sustaining for any length of time. A fabulous Times article in 2012 called it the “great white whale of American cheesemaking.” Ramini Mozzarella in Tomales, CA is the latest effort to make it work, but even its nascent success centers around a $35 per pound mozzarella that is currently sold to local restaurants. An ingenious alternative to potentially soured and mushy Italian mozzarella di bufala is Buf buffalo mozz, produced in Columbia. 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 mouthfeel that weeps sweet, rich, grassy whey when sliced. The gamy notes often attributed to the milk are in fact another sign of its age, and another reason to consider trying the alternatives.