My friend Dean and I were talking (arguing) on the phone the other day — He was asking me if Polly-O string cheese was seriously a legit cheese. In his question, I could hear tones of judgement in his voice. He, a connoisseur of Whole Foods and sugar in the raw, would never dream of eating this processed stuff. Now yes, it’s manufactured, and yes, it comes in plastic, which is against all that I believe in, but….while Polly-O is gross, I’m saying that ugly or not, it still falls under the classification of a pasta filata cheese. A pasta filata (pulled curd) cheese is the type of cheese that provolone and mozzarella fall into. Whether Polly-O falls into this category depends on if you consider processed cheese real or not. Now not the fanciest cheese, certainly, and not my favorite cheese for sure. So hate on it if you must, but this is the poor man’s pasta filata.
More on pasta filata cheeses: This is a style of cheese that is served fresh, and usually consumed within a day or two of making. (Yes, Polly-O has preservatives that make it last freakishly long…but work with me here.) So, as we know, all cheese starts with fresh milk. Rennet is added to make curds (milk solids) and whey (milk liquids). For pasta filata cheeses, the curds are then softened in hot (scalding hot) water and then pulled and stretched so that all the curds fall in the same direction. The treatment of the curds helps to create layers, which are stringy. Now, disclaimer here: real artisanal pasta filata cheeses are made by hand, and Polly-O is certainly not. Also, for pasta filata cheeses, that rubbery, plastic-y trait is not considered good, and you won’t find that in good mozzarellas and provolone or Mexican Oaxaca cheeses.
So because Christina and I are crazy, we decided to try to make mozzarella ourselves. I thought because I had taken a Mozzarella Class at the Brooklyn Kitchen, that I was an expert. You can’t tell by the pictures, but the cheese wasn’t the softest ever. Okay, it was straight up hard. But it’s the thought that counts, right? Or is that just for gifts? Now mind you, while we’re doing this, our landlord (from Sicily, remember) is speaking in Italian to the other Sicilian lady across the street who makes her own mozz daily. Her directions were exactly the same as below, with a few “it’s easy”s thrown in there. I have come to the conclusion that to Italian women, everything is “easy” because cooking is in their blood, and takes little to no effort. Christina and I, meanwhile, were cussing the day those damn curds were born, because the water was scalding hot and the damn things wouldn’t melt.
From top left, clockwise:
Step 1: Get some good curds. Like literally, go into a good cheese shop and say “Give me some curds.” We got these from our favorite Astoria spot, Rosario’s. Remember the amount of curds you buy will net the same amount of mozzarella.
Step 2: Cut the curds and salt them. You can see a recipe here for an idea on how much salt to add.
Step 3: Melt the curds in hot water. By hot I mean boiling. Christina has a freakish ability to dip her hands into hot water and squish, so I let her do this. You want to add a little squishing and stirring action to get the curds to melt before the water cools down.
Step 4: This is what the curds look like melted.
Step 5: Pull the curds. Don’t pull them a lot, just maybe one time, then fold and pull again. This is like pizza dough — the more you knead, the tougher it becomes. This is really the tricky part. By pulling, you’re laying the curd into that one direction, like we talked about above. We found that the hotter you can get the curds, the more pliable they are, and the lighter the end product. But be careful because the more you pull, the more whey is expelled.
Step 5: Form the individual cheeses. Using two hands, kind of form and section off little balls. You want to tuck the loose ends under the bottom, and it’s okay if you capture a little water inside.
Step 6: This is what the mozzarella looks like finished. You should store these in water until you’re ready to use. If you store in the fridge, make sure you bring to room temperature by putting them in warm water. The colder the mozz, the harder it is.
I swear if Christina and I can do this, you can do this. And don’t be discouraged if they’re not perfect. When you melt it, it all tastes the same.
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