What Is Feta Cheese?

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Taking its name from the Italian word for slice, feta is a crumbly, strong-flavored cheese made from sheep’s milk. In Greece, the country with the highest cheese consumption per capita in the world, feta is a national institution and significant source of daily protein. Within the European Union, only the authentic cheese from Greece can call itself feta, but outside the EU various international varieties are available.

Modern Greek Favorite

In Greece, feta is ubiquitous, served from breakfast to dinner as an appetizer, flavoring or topping. Greek meals typically start with a simple amuse bouche of feta, olive oil and oregano to stimulate the appetite. Feta’s distinctive characteristic is its strong, tangy flavor and saltiness, as well as the absence of a rind. Because the cheese is stored in brine as a method of preserving the cheese for export, saltier versions need to be rinsed first.

Authentic feta should be white, slightly crumbly and served in blocks, but alternative spins on the basic recipe are available. Greek feta is made with 70 percent sheep’s milk and 30 percent goat’s milk, a legacy of the mountainous country’s lack of pasture for raising cattle. To identify the best-quality feta check the label to make sure it is made from sheep’s milk, not cow’s, and comes from Greece. The color should be white, not yellow, and there should be no sour or chalky aftertaste. Danish and Australian feta are usually made from cow’s milk, so tend to be creamier, while Bulgarian feta is a blend of sheep’s milk and yogurt, falling somewhere in between on the flavor scale. Supermarkets and delis often serve seasoned and marinated versions, with the cubes marinated in olive oil and herbs rather than a simple brine, and seasoned with anything from oregano and garlic, to pesto and mustard.

Making feta requires milk and a starter bacteria. The resulting curd is cut into cubes and the liquid whey gradually expunged. Once solid, the block is salted in a brine solution and matured for at least 2 months. A faster method, ultrafiltration, uses concentrated milk for a creamier cheese. Danish white cheese is commonly produced in this way, but the product is not traditional feta.

Cooking with Feta

Feta can be very salty and sharp, but lighter, creamier versions are available. The cheese forms a natural pairing with spinach, where it is layered into a filo pastry pie. Crumbled feta also makes an assertive topping for vegetarian pizzas in particular, stepping in as the dominant flavor. Greek salad also takes feta as the starting ingredient, balancing it with a thirst-quenching, palate cleansing concoction of tomatoes, black olives, cucumber and onion. Somewhat surprisingly, feta also pairs well with sweet fruit such as watermelon and cantaloupe.

On the savory side, feta works well for chicken or lamb and can function as an innovative brine if blended with water into a smooth cream and left to marinate the meat overnight. For a hearty breakfast, North African shahshuka looks to crumbled feta as a topping for eggs cracked over a spicy tomato and red pepper sauce, which is then baked in the oven.

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