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Mozzarella is now the number one cheese in America

By Melissa McCart

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

SPRING GROVE, Pa. — Over the past few years, more home cooks and restaurant chefs have been making mozzarella from curd, such as chef Matt Porco at Mezzo and Stephen Felder at Stagioni in Pittsburgh. There’s a theater to the process, and it speaks to diners’ desire for as-fresh-as-it-gets fare.

But not all mozzarella is equal. A mediocre attempt feels rubbery at room temperature or it ends up soupy when it melts on a pizza. The characteristics of fresh mozzarella are shaped by three variables: the skill of the person making it, the freshness — it should be eaten the day it’s made — and the curd.

Quite often, the curd is the most important factor, or so I learned when I tasted a few stand-out mozzarellas with a tanginess and texture as memorable as the process of making it. What these cheeses had in common is that they started with curd from Caputo Brothers Creamery, a farm-based business in York County.

Rynn and David Caputo founded Caputo Brothers Creamery in 2011 in response to their love for pasta filata, or stretched-curd cheeses — including burrata, stracciatella, provolone and scamorza.

When they couldn’t find cheese with a complexity that paralleled those they learned about in culinary school in Calabria — the region at the “toe” of the boot in southern Italy — they set out to make them at home. And they made them again and again and again until they mastered the methods.

Once they changed course from opening a restaurant to making cheese, the plan was to sell it at farmers markets. What they ended up doing has grown into a $500,000-a-year business.

An aside before I continue: What I’ve been calling mozzarella is actually fior di latte, with the charming translation to flower of the milk. Mozzarella is mozzarella when it’s a DOC product — which is the controlled designation of origin — made from a traditional recipe with milk from water buffalo. In the 1990s, the European Union and Italy decided that mozzarella di Bufala Campana is a regional product that is so great the name deserves protection.

Ten years after David decided to focus on food, the Caputos are getting used to the Main Street shop, where they had moved at the end of last year.

On one side of the room, the “Caputo Brothers” — couple’s young sons, Giovanni and Matteo — talked on the phone to their grandmother, while I stood at the counter with a friend.

Rynn stood farther down the counter as she prepared to transform curd into fior di latte in a way that showed her hands could read texture. She knew the process so well, she didn’t have to think.

The key to mozzarella — or stracciatella, or burrata for that matter — starts with a cheese culture that undergoes bacterial fermentation for more than eight hours. Most curd bought in the U.S. is acidified with citric acid that takes all of 30 minutes.

“That’s like serving a bottle of grape juice and citric acid in a wine bottle,” she said. “The bottle says wine, but pour it in a glass and it tastes like grape juice.”

Fermenting changes everything: acidity, texture, color, smell. And the difference is striking.

“What’s amazing is that somewhere along the line, someone decided that milk and citric acid is fresh mozzarella,” David said. According to the USDA, mozzarella has become the No. 1 cheese we consume.

In a stainless steel bowl, Rynn showed me curds made from milk from Apple Valley Creamery in East Berlin, near their home. They had a yellow hue, the result of spring grasses. Her favorite time of the year is the fall, she said, when grasses are sweet and mellow and result in cheese with the softest mouthfeel.

As she salted the curds — not the water, as is conventional wisdom — she said not to break up the curd into too small of pieces because that results in more waste. Then she poured 190-degree water into the bowl with the curds. She had also prepared a second bowl of water just above room temperature, about 100 degrees.

Then she picked up the curd and let gravity do the work, gently stretching it.

“There’s talk about pulling cheese but that’s too much unless you’re making provolone,” she said. “You don’t want to overwork it.” She allowed the curd to evolve from lumpy and bumpy to smooth and shiny.

Mozzare translates as “to break,” or “cut off,” which is what she did to create balls of mozzarella from a sheet of what had been cheese curds.

“Gently roll it under, make your ‘c,’ push into that ‘c’ and let it go,” she said. In one hand, she had a smooth ball of fior di latte with a sheet below, resembling a jellyfish made of cheese. She pinched off the end, then transferred the ball to her palm, then into the hot water.

“The water may cool a bit and that’s OK,” she said. But you don’t want it to be too cold, “or those proteins seize up and make the cheese too tight.”

The difference between fermented curd and that made with citric acid and rennet are that fermented ones have stronger proteins: so a consumer can use 1.5 ounces of her cheese for every 4 ounces of another cheese. And there’s never that soupy texture when it melts because it has a different protein structure.

Whatever the science is, the result is super creamy, complex yet fresh. It’s a bite that captures your attention because it is so rare. And you can taste that the Caputo Brothers’ fior di latte was made in the spring.

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