kitchen firsts: homemade fresh mozzarella
Alright people, I’m finally catching up on my kitchen firsts after returning from my trip, and I’m going to jump right on in with something new and fun! Has anyone else made mozzarella from the curd before? I’ve had it in mind for a little while now that I wanted to try my hand at cheesemaking, but I really wasn’t quite sure how to get started. But I recently taught a cooking camp for some of the kids at my school, and I got it in my head that each day’s recipes would be loosely inspired by one of the food groups. When it came to dairy day, I was a little stumped. We were going to do some cooking with yogurt, but the idea train had stopped there, so my interest was piqued when Stephen suggested that I make cheese with the kids. What a great excuse to experiment with cheese making!
One thing about kids though; most of them are not keen to try things they don’t recognize, so I didn’t want to try to sell them on some kind of crazy cheese process and start tossing words like rennet or curd around too heavily in front of them as I knew this would be greeted by a chorus of eeewwwws. So I decided instead that I would try to make a kid-friendly classic, mozzarella, and that we would simply stretch it from the curd rather than making it 100% from scratch. After a brief period of not being able to find any mozzarella curd in town, I found some for sale at Market of Choice and bought, well, a huge brick of it.
When you look at a 3 lb block of this stuff, it’s hard to imagine it’s even related to the delicious stringy cheese you put on your pizza. I was curious so I tasted the stuff, and I suppose it doesn’t really taste bad, it mostly just tastes like nothing. It’s kind of dry and bland, which makes sense when you realize that all you have to do to transform it into something delicious is add water and salt and stretch it and shape it until it has a nice smooth texture.
Once you see how simple it is to stretch your own mozzarella from the curd, you’ll realize that it hardly counts as cooking, but it will earn you major flavor points and cred with anyone you share your cheese with. I got my simple method from Thomas Keller’s Ad hoc at Home, and as I expected he knew what he was talking about. All you really need to do is make a brine, chop the curd into 1/2 cubes, and then let them go for a swim in the hot brine and get all oozey and stringy with each other. When they’ve melted and gotten a bit puddly in the bowl of brine, you’ll be able to start slowly stretching, then folding it into one or more balls, a rope, or whatever mass you choose before slicing it, shredding it, or letting it set up in an ice bath before storing it. All in all it only takes about a half hour (maybe less once you get a feel for it) and you can have fresh, warm mozzarella ready for any number of summertime treats (pizza, caprese salad, pasta…mmm). If any of those foods are on your menu, I highly encourage you to do a little poking around in your area and figure out who carries mozzarella curd, because once you start making it yourself you’ll never want to buy the regular stuff again.
One caution I will offer is that the first time I made this, it tasted amazing, but I had a hard time getting it to form into a smooth ball like I was expecting. After practicing and researching, I figured out a few things I was doing wrong. First, I didn’t pay attention to the suggestion to cut the curd into small cubes before putting them in the brine. If you leave it in large chunks, it won’t melt as easily and your ball won’t stretch very nicely or become very smooth. Secondly, don’t put more curd in the broth than you’re prepared to work with. If you have 2 pounds of curd but you just want to make a few 1/2 lb balls, don’t throw all the chopped curd in there at once. Just put the amount you want in your batch. Lastly, I think it’s helpful to sort of watch the stretching process a bit before you try it. I found the instructions in Ad hoc to be a little bit confusing, and as a visual person it made a huge difference to watch somebody do the shaping part rather than just reading about it, so feel free to check out a video before you start– neither of these videos (here and here) adhere completely to Keller’s recipe, which I wanted to stick with, but the shaping process is the part that’s most helpful to watch.
So, go forth and experiment with cheese!
Adapted from Ad hoc at Home, by Thomas Keller
1/2 to 2 lbs fresh mozzarella curd
8 cups (2 qts) water
1/4 cup salt
First, stir your water and salt together in a large pot, and place the pot over medium heat. Bring your brine up to a temperature of about 175 degrees, using a candy thermometer perched on the ledge of the pot or any other thermometer you have.
Meanwhile, chop your mozzarella curd into a smallish dice, about 1/2 inch cubes will be easiest. Place the cubes in a large bowl. For beginners (myself included), it is easiest to make just one ball at a time, so if you plan to make several smaller balls rather than one big ball, just put in enough curd for one ball of your chosen size, and make a second batch after you finish the first.
When your brine is ready, ladle or pour the hot brine over the curd cubes, until they’re covered by about an inch. Use a slotted spoon to gently encourage the curds to stay in a pile on the bottom, so that they can melt into each other. Allow the curd to sit in the brine for just a couple of minutes, until it’s starting to melt into a mass, then use your spoon to gently lift the curd up out of the water, ideally in one, albeit not smooth, piece. You want to handle it as gently as possible to retain the butterfat and achieve a nice texture in the finished cheese. Very slowly let the weight of the cheese sort of stretch it off your spoon, then move it to your hand and continue letting it slowly stretch by its own weight. Return the mass to the brine if necessary to warm it up and make it more pliable. As you slowly let it stretch, it will become smoother and smoother. When it’s starting to look pretty uniform, put it back in the warm brine for a minute.
To shape a mozzarella ball, remove the glob from the brine and use your hands to start shaping it into a ball, sort of pulling downward and tucking under, like you might do with a ball of bread dough. Soon you will have a smooth, uniform ball of mozzarella and you’ll be ready to go.
If you want to make bocconcini or similar little pearls of mozzarella, you will need to remove the glob from the brine and start shaping it gently into a rope, pulling it gently like you’re milking a cow. Continue giving the mozzarella time to rest and warm up in the brine as needed while you do this. When you have a rope of your desired size, you can either pinch off little sections from the rope and shape them into small balls, or you can slice the rope into rounds.
Whatever shape you’ve created, if you want to use your mozzarella straight away and it doesn’t matter if it stays round, go ahead and rinse it off, dry it, and and you can use it–chop it, shred it, serve it! But if you want to hold onto your mozzarella a little longer, or if you want to retain a round shape, you’ll need to place in a bowl of cold water (if your tap isn’t very cold, use some ice) to set it, so you don’t lose your hard shaping work, and then you can remove it and blot it dry before using. If you want to store the mozzarella in the fridge, place it in a lidded container, covered with cooled brine. It will keep for a few days but is best enjoyed as fresh as possible.