“People think of feta as one cheese, but feta is a multitude of cheeses,” Keenan says. “Cheddar is not a thing. It’s a style, just like feta. Think of it as a category of cheese. “
What is feta and how is it made?
Feta as we know it has been around since the 12th century. It takes its name from the Italian word “fetta”, which means slice. It falls under the category of fresh cheese and is simply prepared. Traditionally, milk is heated, mixed with probiotic cultures and rennet to coagulate, drained from its whey, sprinkled with salt, brined and then aged in barrels, cans or baskets for at least two months.
“Any attempt to trace the origins of feta takes a researcher straight into quicksand,” Janet Fletcher wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle. “In the Balkans, every country makes this white cheese with chalk and every country thinks it has invented it.”
According to Keenan, “feta is like hummus: it’s a regional food that transcends borders, even though the Greeks claim it’s not true.”
Greek mythology holds that Aristeus, son of Apollo, was sent to teach humans the art of cheese making. Homer’s “Odyssey”, written in the 8th century BC, tells the story of one of the Cyclops, Polyphemus, who made cheese which is said to be the predecessor of feta. Feta and Greece seem to go hand in hand, but similar cheeses traditionally made elsewhere in the region were also labeled ‘feta’, and Greece didn’t like that. “It’s a huge export to Greece, and it’s in their best interest that this be that one identity of Greek feta,” Keenan says.
To maintain a stronghold on cheese, Greece successfully asked the European Union to protect its identity. According to the BBC, the cheese “must meet certain requirements to be called feta, including a minimum of 70 percent sheep’s milk which must come from local breeds of sheep and goats traditionally raised in local pastures and designated areas of Greece.” Thus, within the EU, those made from other countries or with different types of milk are labeled “feta” cheeses. But these rules don’t apply in the United States, which means you need to read the label carefully to determine what type of feta you’re buying.
Types of feta
If your only idea of feta is the dry crumble you sprinkle over the salad, that’s just one form. It can also be sweet and creamy, in a range of flavors and potencies. The main stylistic differences relate to the type of milk and the country of origin. Sheep, goat and / or cow’s milk is all used, and the main producers are Greece, France, Bulgaria and Israel.
Sheep milk: Feta made from the higher fat, traditional option “tends to be very creamy and really rich,” Keenan says. It can also be a bit playful, which may be too overwhelming for some. “But for me, the essence and soul of feta is that lively, moist, intense and creamy lanolin cheese” that comes from sheep’s milk.
Goat’s milk: Keenan finds it “a bit too austere for feta.” However, goat’s milk used in combination with sheep’s milk can produce a milder flavor for anyone who finds 100% sheep’s milk too gamey. In addition, a higher proportion of goat’s milk results in a more crumbly cheese.
Cow milk: “What most people in this country probably eat for feta is industrially produced cow’s milk feta,” Keenan says. “It’s on the drier side, and I think it’s more the result of needing to be sold in supermarkets.” According to Cooking Light, “It can also get slightly sour, but tends to have a milder flavor than other varieties of feta.” American feta is often saltier than others, a game to compensate for the lack of flavor in cow’s milk.
The flavor of feta intensifies with age. But with Greek feta in particular, the terroir – particularly what animals ate in designated areas – also comes into play. Cook’s Illustrated says the flavor the diet gives really “brings out Greek fetas.” Greek producers say the more complex flavors come from an additional step in the cheese-making process, where the cheese is salted and left to sit for a day or two before being placed in brine.
“I feel like the French have really cornered the market for goat’s milk feta,” says Keenan, but they also make cheese from sheep’s milk, sometimes using any excess Roquefort production. . “French feta is more austere and a bit drier” compared to Greek feta. Bulgarian feta is made from sheep’s milk and is on the other end of the creamy spectrum. “The Israelis also make really good feta in this creamier style,” Keenan says.
Buying and cooking with feta
Bulgarian feta is Keenan’s go-to style. Beyond that, it all depends on the type of milk and the country of origin. “My advice is to figure out what you’re cooking and then decide how dry and salty you want to go, and generally dry and salty have a side relationship,” Keenan says. For example, you might not want a very creamy feta for making spanakopita, as the humidity will prevent the phyllo dough from getting crisp. But “for this TikTok pasta, you want the creamiest feta you can find, which unfortunately I’m sure isn’t what people use.” And different types of milk also behave differently when heated, because “goat’s milk does not melt the same way as cow’s milk and sheep’s milk.”
When shopping, remember that feta wrapped in brine lasts longer, doesn’t dry out, and even tastes better. So whether it’s walking through the cheese aisle (the feta from my local grocery store is with the other fancy meats and cheeses you would put on a charcuterie board) or looking at the huge blocks in the case of the charcuterie, Avoid prepackaged dry cheeses and make sure your cheese maker fills your container with brine after cutting a portion. (And don’t throw out that brine! You can use it in a number of ways, such as marinating chicken or baking beans.)
Keenan often buys his cheese in bulk bins without any brands listed – just the type of milk and the country of origin – but if you’re looking for a specific recommendation, “The Israeli feta at Trader Joe’s is really good.”
“People need to understand that feta is a condiment in a lot of places,” she says. “Think of feta, in some ways, like the way Italians use Parmigiano-Reggiano. It’s not something you have to eat a whole block of. You use it as an accent to finish the dishes. “
With all the different ways that cheese can be made, there is a feta for everyone. But if you are still not a fan and want a substitution ricotta has a similar flavor but a different texture, cotija can substitute for crumbles in a salad and fresh goat cheese has comparable brightness and creaminess. While I am still convinced that this is your kitchen and that you are free to do whatever you want, I urge you to give the feta another try if you still have some. to explore all it has to offer.
“Everyone makes a similar recipe, but they use different milks, they use different brine recipes, using different amounts of aging and different amounts of brine time. Even though it’s the same cheese without the quote, everything is really different, ”says Keenan. “I am proud of the feta because it has stood up to homogenization, not of the milk, but of the grade.”