Wednesday, September 12, 2007

A Lesson on Cheeses

As many people know, cheeses are some of the most important ingredients in Italian recipes. In this post, we'll cover the characteristics of some of the most often used Italian cheeses.

**Before we begin, I must offer this tried-and-true advice: Please do not waste your time and money on the pre-processed, packaged 'supermarket' varieties of these cheeses. Always purchase your cheeses at Italian specialty stores if possible, as many specialty stores import their cheeses directly from Italy. If you can't find a specialty store in your area, there are several online Italian cheese sites. If nothing else, at least try to find Italian cheeses in the deli section of your supermarket, where they may be purchased by the pound, in block form. YOu will be amazed at the difference these fresh cheeses will make in your recipes, as opposed to the rubbery, bland, and over processed choices available in the dairy case. Not only will your recipes abound will flavor, your guests or family will thank you for the extra effort!

Now, on to our lesson...

Parmigiano - Reggiano
One of the most frequently used Italian cheeses, Parmigiano - Reggiano is produced under strict regulations in the provinces of Parma, Reggio, Modeno, Mantua, and Bologna. It is made with milk produced between the first of April and the elenth of November. Parmigiano - Reggiano is made by hand by artisan cheesemakers, following a tradition unchanged for seven centuries.
Parmigiano - Reggiano, served by the chunk and sliced, can begin or end a meal. Its gentle flavor enriches soups, pasta, and risotto. It is also a frequent ingredient in simple or complex salads. It is a low-fat, high-protien cheese, and is completly free of additives.
By law. Parmigian-Reggiano is aged at least one year. (aged 2 years, if you can find it, is even better!) Good Parmigiano has a straw yellow color, with a crumbly but moist texture.
Fresh Parmigiano is expensive, but a little goes a long way. It may be stored wrapped in plastic wrap, in the refrigerator, for up to three weeks without losing its freshness. If it begins to dry out, wrap it in a damp cloth and keep in refrigerator for a few hours, then remove the cloth and wrap in plastic wrap. Grate the cheese only as you need it.
Pre-grated domestic 'parmesan' (in the plastic bag) has absolutely no relation to Parmigiano - Reggiano, as you will see if you compare the taste of the two.


Mozzarella is very popular in Southern Italian recipes. The most favored Mozzarella in Italy is made from the curd of water buffalo milk. Unfortunately, what we find most often today is prepared with a percentage of buffalo milk and a percentage of cow's milk, due to the lack of domesticated water buffalo. Again, visit your local Italian specialty store for the best selection of imported mozzarella. If you are lucky enough to find a good imported mozzarella, buy extra, and freeze that which you won't use immediately. Good mozzarella freezes well, and freezing is universally approved by the cheesemakers of Italy. Thaw overnight in refirgetor before using.
Smoked mozzarella is also available. When using smoked mozzarella in recipes, remember that it is quite salty.


Ricotta is a cheese byproduct made from whey, the watery part of the cow's milk. This soft cheese is used in the filling of many pasta preparations and desserts of southern Italy. Fresh ricotta is often not available imported from Italy, as it is very perishable. However, good fresh ricotta can be found in Italian specialty stores. Unlike most italian cheeses, the whole milk ricotta found in supermarkets is an acceptable substitute.


Fontina is a wonderful table cheese. It is a tender, mild cow's milk chesse, produced in Val d'Aosta, dating back to the Middle Ages. Its soft, esy melting quality makes it a favorite for cooking also.


Pecorino cheese is made from sheep's milk. There are many varieties, but the most well-known in this country is pecorino romano, which is a sharp, stronlgy flavored hard cheese, mainly used as a grating cheese.


Mascarpone is a double creamed cheese. Heavy cream is coaguated by the additon of citric acid, which gives this cheese its slightly sour taste. It is high in fat content, and somewhat resembles sour cream, which its thick, heavy consistency. it is used primarily in delicate pasta dishes and desserts, and is the essential ingredient in one of the most well known Italian desserts, Tiramisu. Please, please, do not substitute cream cheesse for this wonderful Italian cheese - you will be doing your recipes a great injustice!

There are many other, less well known Italian cheeses, wonderful in their own rite. This is just a list of those most commonly used in cooking. If you are fortunate enough to have an Italian specialty food store nearby, it's definitely worth a visit, if only to learn more about the fine cheeses that Italy has to offer.

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