There's nothing like that long string of melted cheese that pulls endlessly off a slice of pizza or is twirled around the prongs of a fork along with a bite of lasagna. Mozzarella is a popular mild fresh cheese for those reasons and more (who doesn't love a Caprese Salad?). Though fresh mozzarella is the variety people know best, it's not the only one available. In fact, fresh mozzarella serves as the base for other types of this delicious cheese, including burrata, shredded mozzarella, and smoked mozzarella. With the help of author and cheese specialist Tia Keenan, we explain the differences between those four varieties including how they're made, what they taste like, and how you can cook with them at home.
Mozzarella is made with milk, cultures, rennet, and salt. Rennet is an animal product used to "coagulate the milk and separate the curds from the whey," according to Keenan. Because of this ingredient, mozzarella is not technically vegetarian. To make fresh mozzarella, Keenan explains that whole milk is incubated with a starter culture and rennet to separate the curds (solids) from the whey (liquid—mostly water). Then the curd is salted and heated in boiling water until it can be stretched and formed into balls. From here, it is sold fresh and can be sliced for salads, layered on tartines, tossed with pasta, or fried into kid-friendly sticks. Buffalo mozzarella, otherwise known as Mozzarella di Bufala, is a prized variety of fresh mozzarella made with buffalo milk instead of cow's milk; buffalo milk makes for a cheese with a higher fat content, creamier texture, and slightly funky flavor, according to Keenan.
A ball of mozzarella with a surprise in the middle, that's burrata. When it's cut into, a luscious, creamy center oozes out. It's made by "filling an outer shell of mozzarella with a mixture of curd and cream," says Keenan. In the past few years burrata has gone from being a sought-after import to popular option for entertaining served simply with grilled bread or alongside juicy roasted tomatoes. In addition to more imports, burrata is now produced domestically.
Packed into sealed bags in the grocery store or stuffed into plastic containers in pizza shops, shredded mozzarella is a convenient way to top homemade pizza or sprinkle into pasta dishes. Keenan, like our food editors, prefers using fresh mozzarella over shredded whenever possible, since shredded mozzarella has been cured and aged so it has a longer, more stable shelf life. "[Shredded mozzarella] is coated in starches to prevent clumping in the package. These starches impact the way the cheese melts, especially in recipes like Mornay sauce, which you'd make for a mac and cheese," she notes.
Smoked mozzarella has a golden orange color on the outside, the result of gently smoking the cheese. "Artisanal mozzarellas are smoked using quality wood, which gives the cheese its color and flavor. Some industrial mozzarellas use liquid smoke to keep costs down and simplify the production process," explains Keenan. When possible, ask a cheesemonger to ensure you're getting the best product.