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Buffalo's Milk Mozzarella (Mozzarella di Bufala)

Italy and mozzarella are practically synonymous. The creamy cheese from Southern Italy has won fans all over the world, and its versatility in the kitchen has assured it a starring role in Italian cuisine in both Italy and North America.

The Production Process
In Italy, buffalo's mozzarella is made mostly in the southern region of Campania, near Naples, but also in nearby Apulia and Basilicata. Like many cheeses, mozzarella was invented as a way of saving sour milk. Today, only the freshest milk is used to produce mozzarella. The milk is heated and natural rennet is added; the curds separate from the whey as coagulation occurs. The curds are left in the whey to ferment so that lactic acid develops. Then they are broken up into smaller pieces and the whey is drained off. Traditional cheesemakers reserve the whey and use it as a "starter" for the next day's batch of mozzarella.

The curds are transferred to a large tub of boiling water, where they are stirred with a large wooden stick. Mozzarella is a malleable, or "plastic," curd cheese, and it is this step—the addition of hot water to the curds—that gives the cheese its elasticity, or its melting characteristic. (Other plastic curd cheeses are Provolone, Scamorza, and Caciocavallo, all typical of Southern Italy.) The resulting mass is stretched and pulled until it is smooth and elastic using this same wooden stick. The next step is cutting the mozzarella (mozzare in Italian means "to cut", hence the name "mozzarella"). Like all the preceding steps, this step is carried out by hand in a traditional dairy. Industrial mozzarella is cut by machine, and looks perfectly smooth and round as a result; artisanal mozzarella, on the other hand, is irregular, and you can still see where each cheese was severed from the mother batch.

The mozzarella is then stretched into a taut shape, formed into a ball, oval, or braid, and immersed in cold water, where it firms up. Once it is firm, it is left to soak in brine until it is packed in liquid and sent to market. Mozzarella made from buffalo's milk is tangier and less sweet, than that made from cows' milk; its texture is richer, owing to the fact that buffalo's milk is three times as fatty as cows' milk. (It also has more calcium and protein). In 1979, mozzarella became a DOC cheese; however, the DOC covers only mozzarella made entirely from buffalo's milk. This same DOC decrees that buffalo's milk mozzarella must have a smooth, shiny surface, "a very thin skin the color of porcelain," and an elastic consistency.

Buying Tips
Mozzarella is sold in a variety of shapes: small balls called bocconcini (little bites), plump spheres, and braids. These shapes can weigh anywhere from one ounce to twenty ounces. Since it should be eaten within a few days of its production—some people think a within a few hours is better—it is especially important to have a reliable mozzarella vendor in your area.

Look for the following characteristics, which indicate freshness. First, the consistency should be elastic, and the surface should be tight, smooth, and humid, neither too dry nor too wet. There should be no yellowish marks or spots, and the cheese's texture should be neither soft nor rubbery when pressed with a finger. Once you slice into the mozzarella, it should have a grainy surface and appear to be composed of many layers, like an onion, especially near the surface. As time passes (within ten hours of the cheese's production), these layers gradually disappear and the cheese loses some of its elasticity. This is another reason why it is best not to buy mozzarella that is close to its expiration date (check the package for an expiration date stamp). Pearls of milky whey should seep out when you cut into mozzarella; upon tasting, you should notice the liquid separating from the solid, almost as if the mozzarella had been soaked in milk. Good mozzarella should simply melt in your mouth.

Cooking Ideas
When you have a reliable source of fresh mozzarella, the culinary possibilities are endless. At its simplest, all mozzarella needs is a drizzle of extra-virgin olive oil and a grinding of aromatic black pepper, and it's ready to eat. Mozzarella is ideal combined with tomatoes, basil, or oregano, and can be stirred into cold or hot pasta or vegetable dishes. In the classic insalata caprese, it is paired with ripe tomatoes and sweet basil and dressed with extra-virgin olive oil (but no balsamic vinegar or lemon, as many recipes suggest). A delicious dish called spaghetti caprese combines the flavors of this salad with the satisfying texture and taste of pasta, making the mozzarella melt lusciously on contact with the hot pasta.

In Campania, mozzarella is served in carrozza (literally, in a carriage): sandwiched between two slices of bread, battered, and fried. It is also essential to melanzane alla parmigiana (eggplant parmigiana), deep-fried half-moon pastries called panzerotti that also feature salami, and calzone. And, of course, pizza wouldn't be the same without mozzarella. When using fresh mozzarella to top your pizza or fill your calzone, it is best to cut the cheese into cubes and allow it to drain for several hours in a colander so that the crust doesn't become soggy. Some pizzaioli swear by packaged "dry" mozzarella for pizza, saying it yields a crisper crust. In Italy, though, this isn't a problem, since there is a special variety of fresh mozzarella with a lower moisture content meant especially for topping pizzas.

Mozzarella is also delicious sliced and grilled; cubed, skewered with bread, and grilled, then topped with a warm anchovy sauce (a traditional Roman antipasto); or stuffed into focaccia. When it is stirred into tomato sauce, it gives rice, pasta, or gnocchi a meltingly rich and delicious consistency. Mozzarella's delicate flavor is best accompanied by white country bread, which doesn't overwhelm its flavor. Pair it with fresh white wines such as Locorotondo, Verdicchio, or a Riesling Italico from Oltrep´┐Ż Pavese.



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