Fresh & Local
Making Homemade Mozzarella Cheese
Column #60, Published Nov 9th, 2012)

A couple of weeks ago, Terry said to me, “We need to try making mozzarella cheese.”

I didn’t remember cheese-making being on my bucket list. I checked it just to be sure, and it wasn’t there.

“O.K. Where did this idea come from?” I inquired.

“It’s from Pioneer Woman.”

Ahhh. If you don’t know, Pioneer Woman is the website of Ree Drummond. She left an urban, corporate life to marry an Oklahoma cattle rancher. Her web site is about her transition from, in her words, “spoiled city girl to domestic country wife.” She also has a cooking show on the Food Network, and has authored some pretty good cookbooks.

As you undoubtedly know, mozzarella cheese is a curd cheese that originated in Italy. What you probably didn’t know is that traditional mozzarella is made from water buffalo milk. Since water buffalo are herded in only a very few places - Italy being one of them - water buffalo milk is expensive. Most mozzarella today is now made from cow's milk.

I didn’t realize that the mozzarella cheese that is sold in grocery stores is really a low-moisture, part-skim milk, low sugar-content variant. The grocery store version is specifically formulated to limit its browning when you bake it on a pizza or on pasta.

Fresh mozzarella is different. It is a high-moisture, very white, and very soft cheese. It is traditionally served the day after it is made, but is often stored in brine for short periods. I have had insalata caprese before (fresh mozzarella served with sliced tomatoes and basil), and I didn’t realize that the cheese was fresh mozzarella.

Here is something else I did not know: The best fresh mozzarella is made with unpasteurized milk. Although the Food and Drug Administration bans the interstate sale of raw milk for human consumption, it is legal to sell it in 28 states. Unfortunately, Virginia is not one of them. But not to worry. If it is illegal to sell unpasteurized milk in Virginia, that just means you have to barter for it from someone who has a dairy cow.

(I understand that someone locally allows people to buy into a "cow-sharing" agreement. You can pay a fee and get an allocation of the milk it produces. This is a variation of a CSA agreement.)

Proponents of raw milk make two basic arguments for unpasteurized milk. First, they claim that pasteurization destroys or damages some of the milk's nutrients. Secondly, while pasteurization might kill dangerous bacteria, it also kills off good bacteria that supporters claim to have health benefits. But the good bacteria found in raw milk are also important to the flavors and properties of many cheeses, including mozzarella.

Once you have the milk, the procedure for making mozzarella is really fairly simple. You add citric acid to the milk and heat it. Citric acid is available any place that sells canning supplies, including Clarke Hardware.

You then add rennet to the heated milk. Rennet is a complex of enzymes produced in the stomachs of mammals, and is often used in the production of cheese. Rennet coagulates the milk, causing it to separate into solids (curds) and liquid (whey).

Most of the rest of the process is removing more and more of the whey.

We had friends over and served the finished cheese topped with fresh shredded basil, olive oil and a good balsamic vinegar. Well worth the effort.

You can get the directions, complete with pictures, on the Pioneer Woman web site. Search for the word ‘mozzarella.’

Bryant Osborn and his wife Terry own Corvallis Farms in Culpeper County. His column on fresh and locally grown food runs every Friday. He can be reached at