Feta is a classic Greek curd first recorded in Byzantine times but is still made by shepherds in the Greek mountains with unpasteurized milk. It was originally made with goat or sheep’s milk, but today much of what is made commercially for exportation is made with pasteurized cow’s milk, which produces a firmer version. The milk is curdled with rennet, a natural complex of enzymes, then separated and allowed to drain in a special mold or a cloth bag. It is then cut into large slices that are salted and packed in barrels filled with whey or brine and cured for a week to several months. Because the Feta is packed in brine, it is often referred to as pickled cheese.
The name ‘feta’ comes from the Italian fetta (slice), and dates back to the 17th century, likely referring to the method of cutting the cheese in thin slices to serve on a plate. Feta can range from soft to semi-hard and is usually formed into square cakes with no skin. It is clean white in color with a rich, distinguishable aroma and is known for its tangy, salty flavor that can range from mild to sharp. Its milk fat content can range anywhere from 30 to 60 percent.” In some cases, even those individuals who are lactose intolerant and are allergic to cow’s milk products are able to consume goat and sheep milk without experiencing side effects. The lactose or protein in the milk is what usually causes the allergic reaction or intolerance, but even though goat and sheep milk contain both lactose and protein, it is of a different composition.
Feta cheese selection and storage
The finest feta cheese should be purchased direct from its brine bath. If it is pre-packaged, it should have some of the brine in the packaging to keep it moist. Feta cheese is best when eaten fresh, so always check the date. If the cheese will not be consumed immediately, it is best to store feta in a brine or milk bath, which will reduce the saltiness and help keep the cheese moist and mild in flavor. Properly stored in brine or milk and refrigerated, feta cheese will last up to three months. If additional brine is needed, mix one pound of kosher salt with a gallon of water. Feta should always be protected from exposure to air which will cause it to dry, and will cause the taste to sharpen or sour.
- Freeze: Feta can be frozen, but the texture will change slightly. After defrosting, use this feta to crumble on salads or in cooked dishes, rather than as slices. Freeze wrapped in airtight plastic packaging; defrost, wrapped, in the refrigerator. When defrosted, if not used at once, store in brine or olive oil.
- Store in paper: Barrel-aged feta sold straight from the barrel may be wrapped in a lightweight paper, then in a plastic bag. Keep the feta in the paper, even when it gets soggy from the cheese moisture, and keep in either a plastic bag or plastic wrap.
- Store in olive oil: This is often called “marinated feta” and is excellent for use in salads. Place chunks of feta in glass jars to 1/2 inch of the top and cover completely with olive oil. Seal tightly and store. Do not refrigerate.
Shopping for feta cheese can be a little more than confusing. Despite the 2005 ruling by the European Union restricting use of the name “feta” to Greece, the market is still filled with cheese labeled “feta” from EU member countries like France and Denmark. Feta can also be found from Romania, Bulgaria, and the United States.
Most chain supermarkets sell feta in small packages, but there are other options. If you wish to purchase larger quantities, check out Greek and Middle Eastern markets in your area, or do some online shopping by using your favorite search engine to find “feta cheese.” Online sources like iGourmet and Amazon.com’s Gourmet Food Shop are just a few sources.
Authentic Feta cheese may be somewhat expensive, costing anywhere from $7 to $10 per pound when purchased in small quantities, but if you buy in large quantities and store it, the price will most likely become more affordable.
The milk fat content of feta ranges from 45 to 60 percent. Typically, the nutritional values for one ounce of feta cheese are:
In 1 oz. of feta:
- 75 calories,
- 1 gram carbohydrates,
- 4 grams of protein,
- 25 milligrams of cholesterol,
- 6 grams of fat,
- 4.2 grams of saturated fat
Feta cheese cooking tips
- In general, feta cheese and goat’s cheese can be used interchangeably if need be.
- Those on salt-restricted diets should avoid feta cheese.
- Feta is considered a medium-fat cheese on a par with mozzarella and reduced-fat versions of regular cheeses.
- Allow a good thirty minutes for feta cheese to come to room temperature to fully enjoy its rich, tangy flavor and creamy texture.
- In a pinch, Muenster cheese can be substituted for feta cheese in many cooked recipes.
A Few Quick Serving Ideas for Feta
Feta is delicious crumbled over salads (the Classic Greek Salad), or together with sliced tomatoes, sprinkled with olive oil and fresh herbs. It is also used as a filling for puff pastry (feuilletes)
Feta is an important ingredient of Greek salad, like most cheeses, can also be served cooked; it is sometimes grilled as part of a sandwich as a salty alternative to other cheeses in a variety of dishes.
Feta can also be used as a fondue when mixed with ricotta cheese, butter, lemon juice, and parsley.