The second in a monthly series
on do-it-yourself food preparation.
Pizza night in our house is full-on DIY. Homemade pizza dough and sauce from summer’s canned tomatoes, sure; that’s de rigeur. But homemade mozzarella? Oh, yes. Quite simply, it’s a revelation.
Mozzarella is entry-level cheesemaking: satisfying, quick, inexpensive and fun. Stretching the cheese is like pulling taffy, but the cheese is quicker to come together. In fact, the process is so quick that if it’s taking too long, you might have overdone it and the cheese might be tough. But it will still melt like a dream and taste fresh and milky, and the next time, you’ll do even better.
And that pizza? Just tear pieces of cheese and scatter them across its surface. While you’re doing that, some of those pieces might end up in your mouth. It happens. After melting, the mozzarella bubbles and browns into the chewy topping and long, tantalizing strings associated with the best pizzeria pies. At home. In about 40 minutes.
First things first: The better the milk, the better the cheese. It’s possible to make mozzarella from whole, 2 percent, 1 percent or nonfat milk, but not from UHT (ultra-high-temperature) processed milk, so check the label; curds simply will not form if you use UHT milk. I prefer the flavor of whole milk and always use pasteurized, non-homogenized milk from one of our local dairies.
You’ll need two items that might not be in your arsenal: citric acid, a coagulant, and rennet, an enzyme that firms curd. Both are available in some grocery stores, in the canning department of hardware stores, at international grocers and online. Neither is expensive, and citric acid will come in handy when canning tomatoes this summer. Rennet is available in tablet or liquid form, either animal-based or vegetarian (made from artichokes). Always keep rennet in the refrigerator; it will stay fresh and active for a year.
From there, the process is straightforward: You dilute both citric acid and rennet before gently stirring them into the milk. Then you leave it alone, and the transformation happens. In just a few minutes, the milk achieves a custardy texture, jiggly but firm. Slip in a knife and press the curds aside, then use a long knife to cut a 1-inch checkerboard pattern all the way through the curds, from the top to the bottom and side to side.
Gently heated, these creamy curds are ready to be spooned out of the whey and drained. Now for the fun part: You take small clumps and dip them into the reheated whey before stretching. The cheese is ready when it’s shiny and bouncy and buoyant. Taste it. So tender.
A gallon of milk makes five or six baseball-size portions of mozzarella. That’s more than you need for pizza, so use some of the curds to fashion a few other forms. Homemade string cheese for the kids’ lunch, herb-marinated bocconcini (small balls) for yours. Layer a flat rectangle of the shiny white cheese with prosciutto and roll it into a log, then slice into spirals as a pre-dinner snack (what the French and Italians call “apéro”).
Mozzarella is only one of the stretched cheeses — provolone is another — and they are all differentiated by their tender quality when fresh and young, and their firm sliceability when aged or chilled. When refrigerated, your mozzarella will firm up as the fats tighten, and the cheese will lose some of its bounce. Try to eat most of it right away, especially when still warm: It’s so much creamier and tender than store-bought, but it won’t hold long — at most, only a day or two.
Or buy yourself more time by making stracciatella (the cheese, not the egg-drop soup or chocolate-studded gelato of the same name). I’ve been making mozzarella for years, but chef Matt Adler at Osteria Morini taught me this new form, and I haven’t looked back. Once the curds are stretched and silky-shiny, you pull them into long strands, spoon those into cream, chop them up with scissors and stir until they absorb the rich cream.
The result spoons like ricotta or cottage cheese (although Adler gave me the side-eye when I made the comparison to the latter, traditionally a diet food) but has those delicious strings that stretch from bowl to mouth. Unlike mozzarella, delicious stracciatella holds for four days in the refrigerator. These days, I turn half of my mozzarella into stracciatella for the fastest, most satisfying lunch imaginable.
The next time dinner plans include pizza, pick up a gallon of milk. Pizza, lunch, apéro: So many delicious options, with not much effort.
Barrow is the author of “Mrs. Wheelbarrow’s Practical Pantry: Recipes and Techniques for Year-Round Preserving,” (W.W. Norton, 2014). She blogs at www.mrswheelbarrow.com. She will joinWednesday’s Free Range chat at live.washingtonpost.com.