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The Food Issue: My Mozzarella

Fast, easy, inexpensive, and delicious to make at home? I beg to differ.



"I don't think it's going to work," I finally admitted to my friend Emily as I tried for the dozenth time to stir the mess of milk solids in the bowl together into cheese. It was supposed to be easy: several sources had assured me that nothing could be faster and simpler, or produce more delicious results, than making fresh mozzarella.

Of course, a couple Web sites I'd come across had warned that making mozzarella was an advanced project that, according to one, "should not be attempted as your first cheese." Those I had ignored.

After all, the Tipsy Baker (, whose blog post on making fresh mozzarella had inspired me to try it myself, had breezed through on her first attempt. She actually called it the greatest triumph of her cooking life—this from someone who blogs almost daily about cooking. She'd used a mozzarella-making kit from New England Cheesemaking Supply Company, which included citric acid, rennet, and a dairy thermometer, and made it in 45 minutes with her eight-year-old son. "This cheese was one of the most incredible things I've ever made," she concluded. "Not just ever made, ever tasted." She did not, however, share the recipe.

That's where my problems started. I must've looked at a dozen recipes, and every one had a different opinion on how much rennet and citric acid to add and at what temperature. I picked the one that started out by assuring me that it wasn't complicated or expensive and that it would take me less time than making a cake out of a box mix: "It isn't rocket science."

Finding the ingredients was in fact fairly easy. Rennet, which contains the enzyme that makes the milk coagulate (traditionally extracted from the stomachs of baby calves or goats but now usually made from vegetable matter), seemed the most daunting, but the second Whole Foods I tried carried it. Most important, apparently, is having good-quality milk that hasn't been pasteurized at too high a temperature, preferably nonhomogenized. That came from Whole Foods too—Farmers' All Natural Creamery brand, at four dollars for a half gallon. With a gallon of milk and the $5 dropper bottle of rennet, plus a bottle of water (because the recipe said any chlorine in our tap water would kill the enzymes in the rennet), I was already out $15 for stuff that was supposed to make less than a pound of cheese. So much for inexpensive—I usually buy ready-made fresh mozzarella for $7.50 a pound or less.

Emily and I poured the milk into a large stainless-steel pot, added two teaspoons of citric acid, and started heating it to 88 degrees, measuring the temperature with a candy thermometer. When that proved hard to read we threw in a digital meat thermometer to double-check the temperature, but the two thermometers refused to agree. The milk also seemed to be heating up faster than we'd expected, so we quickly added the rennet (which we'd already diluted with a little of the bottled water) and crossed our fingers.

The recipe said to keep stirring occasionally until the temperature reached 105 degrees, then turn off the heat and scoop the curds into a bowl. We ditched the candy thermometer and ended up just using the meat one, which showed the temperature climbing slowly to about 102 as I stirred, then shooting up to 108. We turned off the heat immediately and ladled the curds into a cheesecloth-lined strainer, squeezing out as much whey as we could. We put the curds in the microwave for a minute, poured off the whey again, and stirred them until they cooled.

As we repeated the microwaving process the curds were supposed to come together into a doughy substance that we could knead. They became dry and crumbly instead. We tried adding a little whey back in and continued to microwave and stir them, but it didn't help. I pinched off a little bit and tasted it: too sour and salty, with an unpleasantly grainy texture. Even if we got it to turn into cheese, it would be terrible-tasting cheese.

We kept trying anyway, microwaving and stirring. Finally we had to admit defeat. Still, we had a huge pot of whey, which I'd read could be used to make ricotta. A quick search turned up a recipe that instructed us to add a quarter cup of vinegar and heat the whey to 175 degrees, then pour it into a cheesecloth-lined colander to drain. But when we'd finished, there were no solids to drain the whey from.

So maybe the Internet wasn't the best source for cheese-making instructions. This process was clearly a little more complex than we'd bargained for, and none of the recipes I'd found included any explanation of the why and how of cheese making. While we thought our thermometer issues had caused us to overheat the milk, and it seemed likely that adding too much citric acid had caused the sourness in our cheese—er, milk product—we really had no way of knowing for sure where we'd gone wrong. Maybe if I could talk to someone who knew what he was doing and watch the cheese being made . . .

Most of the stores I called that stocked fresh mozzarella didn't make their own. And the ones that did never got back to me after I explained that I was a reporter who wanted to talk to their cheese maker about making it.

Finally, in a thread on LTHForum, I came across Riviera Italian Imported Foods in northwest-side Dunning. Sure, said the woman who answered the phone, her father made fresh mozzarella there every morning, and I was welcome to come out and watch whenever I wanted.

I told her I'd be there the next morning.

When I arrived, Carmelo Pugliese, who owns the store and runs it with his wife, Caterina, his daughter, Lina, and his son, Mike, already had everything ready: water was heating on the stove and the curds were crumbled up in a large, wide bowl. Rather than making fresh mozzarella from milk, I learned, Carmelo buys premade curds. He actually learned how to do it from scratch at Riviera, where he started working nearly 30 years ago (under different ownership and in a different location) after moving his family here from a small town in the Calabria region of Italy. Back home he was a bricklayer.

Carmelo used to make the mozzarella from milk, he said, but making it from scratch became "too much work."

Carmelo Pugliese makes mozzarella at Riviera Italian Imports - JULIA THIEL
  • Julia Thiel
  • Carmelo Pugliese makes mozzarella at Riviera Italian Imports

As I watched he salted the curds and then poured the hot water over them, using a wooden stick to stir. The process went fairly quickly: he stirred, poked at, and lifted the curds from the steaming water with the stick (and sometimes with his hands) until they became stretchy. Then he began pulling out a little at a time, tying it into a knot, cutting off the knot with a knife, and tossing the finished mozzarella into a waiting tub of cold water in the sink.

I asked why Carmelo knots the mozzarella, but since he didn't speak much English it was Mike who told me it can be made into any shape, but customers like the knots. It doesn't affect the texture of the finished product, he said. Carmelo also showed me how he makes the more traditional balls, squeezing them out between his thumb and forefinger.

The language barrier prevented me from grilling Carmelo on how to make mozzarella from milk, and I didn't even know enough about what had gone wrong in my own first attempt to know what to ask anyway. But I did think that after watching him I might be able to make cheese from curds, so I asked if I could buy some. Mike obligingly sold me a pound and threw in a few of Carmelo's finished knots as well.

At home later that day, I heated up a pot of water to just below boiling. (Mike hadn't been able to give me an exact temperature for the water because his father never measures.) Then I poured it over the pound of curds, which I'd crumbled in a bowl. I prodded at them until they came together into a mass, and then began stretching them out. I'm not nearly as tough as Carmelo, it turns out, and the hot curds burned my hands until I put on rubber gloves. As long as the cheese stayed hot enough it stretched beautifully, and I spent quite a while just playing with it, dunking it in the hot water when it started to break instead of stretch.

Unsurprisingly, I wasn't nearly as good at tying the cheese in knots as Carmelo was, but aside from being a little ugly my cheese turned out pretty well. It might have been slightly chewier than Carmelo's—I could've spent too much time playing with it—but overall it was pretty similar in both taste and texture. The next day, though, when I took both out of the refrigerator, I noticed that my mozzarella was covered in slime while his was fine. I called the store and learned that he salts the hot water he pours over the curd, which I hadn't done.

I still wanted to make mozzarella from milk, though. I'd been doing some more reading online, and according to several sources it was extremely important not to disturb the milk while it was forming curds. We'd stirred our milk while it was supposed to be curding—as our recipe had told us to—which could have been our problem. I still had no idea which recipe was best, but now I was pretty sure the one I'd originally chosen was the worst.

Thinking a book—something somebody had been paid to write and edit, that presumed a customer and thus owed that customer some degree of satisfaction—might be a more reliable source, I stopped by Borders and picked up the only cheese-making one they had in stock, The Home Creamery. It offered two recipes for fresh mozzarella. I chose the one that didn't involve microwaving the cheese on the theory that the old-fashioned way would be better.

Since I already had about a pound and a half of fresh mozzarella in my fridge from the day before, I decided to halve the recipe. Better to waste half a gallon of milk than a whole gallon.

I dumped the milk in a pot, added citric acid, and turned the flame under it as low as it would go. I measured out the rennet into a little bit of water so it would be ready to add. The reading on the new digital thermometer I'd bought since my first attempt climbed steadily to about 82 degrees—and then started dropping. (I was aiming for 88.) I turned up the heat ever so slightly, causing the temperature to shoot up into the 90s. Even after I turned off the burner, it continued to climb. Eventually, it dropped to close to 88. I stirred. It went back up to 96. Still, I figured, the laws of physics applied—what goes up must come down. And it did: suddenly the temperature dropped to 84 without even briefly stopping at 88. I turned the heat back on low, and the temperature rocketed back up into the mid-90s again, where it stuck, refusing to budge; it would drop a few degrees only to go back up again as soon as I stirred the milk.

At this point I'd spent more than 20 minutes playing with the temperature, and the rennet was only supposed to be good for half an hour after I'd dissolved it in water. I was running out of time and the temperature refused to drop. I finally took the milk outside to cool down, and it obliged.

I added the rennet, stirred it in well, and then covered the pot and let it sit for 15 minutes. And—amazingly—there were curds! Curds I could cut with a knife, even. They seemed a little soft, but then I really had no idea how soft was too soft. I cut them into one-inch squares, let them sit another five minutes, and then heated them slowly, stirring occasionally. Instead of shrinking down on themselves like they were supposed to, they seemed to be coming apart into a loose, blobby mass that looked a little like cottage cheese—and a lot like our last attempt at that stage. But the temperature was behaving itself, sedately climbing up to 108.

Clockwise from top left: Carmelo's mozzarella, my second attempt (from curd), my third attempt
  • Julia Thiel
  • Clockwise from top left: Carmelo's mozzarella, my second attempt (from curd), my third attempt

I let it sit for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally, and then drained it in a cheesecloth-lined strainer for a few minutes. At this point I was supposed to dump the curds into a bowl of 108-degree water, which would make them warm enough to work into cheese. I put them into the water, but they refused to come together. Deja vu.

I nearly gave up right then, but decided it couldn't hurt to drain the curds and try the microwave method for heating them. That actually worked—the curds came together, and I was able to start stretching them into cheese. They looked and felt very similar to the curds I'd worked with the day before after they were heated up, and I repeated the microwaving/stretching process several times.

Finally I formed the stuff into two smallish balls and dropped them into cold water to cool. I pulled the mozzarellas from the day before out of the fridge for comparison, set one of mine and one of Carmelo's on a plate, and fished one of the new mozzarella balls out of the water. It felt leaden and was a dirty off-white color, especially compared to the soft, snowy-white cheese on the plate.

I cut into it. It wasn't just too firm, it was so rubbery I thought it might bounce if I dropped it. My roommate Kelly ate a little piece and declared it "the weirdest thing ever . . . like tasteless fruit." Having concluded it wasn't fit for eating, I decided to test my theory by throwing it on the floor. It bounced about a foot.

It seemed like a good time for some more online research. In an article about making cheese using the same recipe from The Home Creamery I had used, I learned that the book had a typo in it—which the author of the article had discovered by calling the cookbook author after her own attempt to make fresh mozzarella failed. The water for dipping the curds should have been heated to 180 degrees, not 108. More Internet research revealed that the curds have to reach about 140 degrees before they'll stretch. If I'd known that earlier, I would've realized the recipe couldn't possibly be right.

Still, my experimentation had at least gained me some experience. I bought another book, Home Cheese Making, which had great reviews and a fairly good explanation of the basic concepts behind making cheese. I went for the 30-minute microwave mozzarella recipe this time, though. I may be a glutton for punishment, but even I have my limits. Another two-hour cheese-making session wasn't in the cards.

As I again went through the process of adding citric acid to the milk, heating it, adding rennet, and letting it sit, I marveled at how smoothly everything was going. The curds formed just like they were supposed to and didn't fall apart when I stirred them. I was feeling slightly smug as I microwaved them, drained off the whey, and repeated the process. I was careful not to overdo the microwaving or stretch the curds too much, to avoid toughening them, and as I dropped the finished balls into a bowl of cold water I thought how much easier this had been than the first attempt.

Then I pulled the mozzarella out of the water. It felt too dense and not soft enough. I cut into one of the balls. Rubber, albeit slightly softer than my last attempt. The piece I sliced off tasted a little creamy, though—like it might have been good if it hadn't had the consistency of a SuperBall.

I took what was left of Carmelo's mozzarella, now a week old, out of the fridge for comparison. Though it was only supposed to keep for three or four days, it still beat my latest attempt hands down. In fact, it tasted pretty much perfect.

On the bright side, I had almost half a gallon of whey . . .   


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