We love fresh mozzarella on our pizzas and in our caprese salads, and turns out making it at home couldn't be simpler, in fact this whole process can be done in under 15 minutes!
Choosing the right cheese curd is one of the most important steps in the process, says Matthew Gallira, Founder of The Atlantic Ave Company and Co-Founder of Big Mozz, a stand operated every Saturday and Sunday at Smorgasburg in Brooklyn, New York. Put simply, curd is the result of separating milk into liquid (whey) and solid (curd) using rennet, and an acid.
"At Big Mozz, we use a cultured cheese curd sourced from Caputo Brother's Creamery, a local organic dairy farm in PA. Grass-fed cows are milked in the morning, then a live culture is introduced that eats the lactose in the milk for breakfast, and as a by-product produces lactic acid. This separates the milk into curd and whey, while giving our cheese it's amazing tangy, umami character. This is different from 99%+ of curd produced in the US, which use citric acid or other chemicals to separate the milk and leaves it mostly bland and tasteless. Put simply, ours is the good stuff: if you flew to Rome, drove south, and stopped at a farm for some mozzarella di bufala, you would get cheese just like ours," says Gallira.
Cheese curd is also available at specialty cheese shops like Murray's and Saxelby's, restaurant supply stores, or you can order some online.
Always source your curds appropriately, concurs Executive Chef Kevin Chun of Louie and Chan in New York City. Depending on the use of mozzarella, the fat content in the curds and type of milk could make a huge difference. When using store bought curds, make sure you leave them out at room temperature for at least an hour or two before using.
Pay attention to the milk you're using
Due to the simplicity of this cheese, using the freshest milk possible makes a huge difference. "I always try and get something from a local dairy. I live in New York, so Hudson Valley Fresh is my current go-to for making fresh mozzarella. Whatever you do, don't use ultra-pasteurized milk. I made this mistake the first time I tackled fresh mozzarella," says Executive Chef Blessing Schuman-Strange of Bistango at the Kimberly Hotel. By using the freshest and highest quality milk you can find, the better your mozzarella will turn out.
Gently break your curd into nickel and dime sized pieces in a large mixing bowl, and season liberally with kosher salt, about 2 or 3 heaping tablespoons per pound. "We'll salt the curd directly (rather than brining the finished cheese) to preserve as much of the moisture inside the cheese as possible," says Gallira.
Next, heat your water to 190 degrees (no higher), and pour it over the curds until the are just covered. You don't want them swimming around, because it will be more difficult to form a single mass. Gently move the handle of your spatula through the curds to make sure they don't clump together, and warm up as evenly as possible," Gallira says.
After about two minutes, slowly scrape the flat end of your spatula along the bottom of the bowl, pushing the curds to one side. You want to let them meld together to form a single mass. Add some more hot water to the bowl if it starts to cool down, or the curds aren't melding, says Gallira. If your hands are sensitive to heat, double or triple up on plastic disposable gloves to prevent your hands from burning, advises Chun, who makes fresh mozzarella for his restaurant's famous pizzas.
It is important to let the mozzarella sit and rest in a salted mixture of milk and water for at least six hours before consuming, says Chun. This allows the mozzarella to relax and absorb more moisture and salt, and will yield a softer cheese as well.
Shortcut: Use a microwave.
"I'm usually not a fan of the microwave. I do not have one in my restaurant because I think it encourages bad habits in my cooks. However, when it comes to making fresh mozzarella at home, using a microwave to heat the curd during pulling instead of dunking into hot water takes a lot of the intimidating technicality of the task," says Schuman-Strange. “When I have a restaurant kitchen at my disposal, I do it the old-fashioned way, but if I am just making something simple at home, you will not lose much by taking this shortcut,” he says.
Once the curds are formed together, you have mozzarella and it's ready to eat. However, to get that chewy mouth feel of great fresh mozzarella, stretch the cheese. This "loosens the shoulders" on the proteins in the cheese and helps them bind together in longer chains, which will make your cheese chewier and easy to shape, says Gallira.
"Lift the mozzarella out of the bowl on your spatula, keeping it at a 45 degree upward angle. You want a fulcrum for the cheese to stretch itself. We're not pulling the mozzarella – let it gently stretch under its own weight until most of the lumps and bumps are stretched out of the cheese," says Gallira.
Let it fall back into the water to warm up again, and give it one or two more good stretches, Gallira says. This is when you impress your friends with your cheese-making skills, so make sure you look like this part is no big deal.
Shaping your mozzarella
After stretching, you'll want to work quickly so the cheese doesn't overcook in the hot water. To get that shiny, smooth skin on your cheese, fold it onto itself like you're balling up a pair of socks. Do that until you have a nice, baguette-shaped piece, says Gallira. Drop it back into the water. If you're making sandwiches or pizza, you can place the baguette into a bowl of room-temperature water, and slice it up however you like.
For smaller shapes: Gallira says to fold the end of the cheese over using your left hand to get the size ball you want; form a "C" with your right thumb and index finger, and squeeze those fingers together as hard as you can to break off the cheese. Then use your left hand to pull the ball of mozz, using your right thumb as your knife. Do this a few times and it will feel very natural. Drop the finished product in the water bath, and you're done!
"At Big Mozz, we stretch our fresh mozzarella on site and create a menu from that warm, incredibly fresh cheese. Our signature dish is the Mozz Bomb: a medium-sized ball, injected with our roasted garlic pesto, and served over fresh tomatoes and spring greens," says Gallira.
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