Your Ultimate Guide to Buying and Using Authentic Greek Feta Cheese

Not all feta is the real deal. Here's how to tell what you're buying, and our best advice on how to use this tangy cheese.

Photo: Jonathan Lovekin

It's one of the world's most recognizable cheeses and might just be the oldest one from Europe. Naturally, we're talking about feta. As the signature cheese of Greece, feta is a required ingredient in classic recipes like Greek salad, feta and spinach pie, and feta and watermelon salad. Feta cheese was first referenced in Homer's Odyssey in the eighth century BCE, and the methods of production are pretty much the same now as they were then. It's made from sheep's milk cheese, sometimes with a little goat's milk, and is aged in wooden barrels or tins filled with brine. In the 1930s the Greek government set the rules for feta production and in 2002 the European Union declared feta to be a protected designation of origin (PDO) product just like many other cheeses such as Parmigiano Reggiano and Roquefort. Only PDO labeled cheese is feta; all other feta-like cheeses are not the real deal.

How to Know if it's True Greek Feta?

When you buy PDO feta, look for the round yellow and red PDO logo on the package. This guarantees that it is made from at least 70 percent good quality sheep's milk with the addition of up to 30 percent goat's milk, that the goats and sheep have fed on the local flora in areas where no fertilizers and insecticides are used, and that it is produced in one of only seven areas of Greece—Macedonia, Epirus, Thrace, the Peloponnese, Sterea Ellada, Thessaly, or Lesvos. All other cheese may be in the style of Greek feta, but won't be authentic Greek feta. Cows are not common in Greece because of the dry Mediterranean conditions, but sheep and goats are. They graze on hundreds of wild plants and herbs that give their milk and the resulting cheese a very particular flavor that is a balance of mineral and herbal notes.

Feta-Style Cheeses

In other countries, including France, Bulgaria, Denmark, Australia, and the U.S., feta-style cheese is made. These may be made with cow's milk, and they're generally aged for a shorter period of time than authentic Greek feta is (at least two months and sometimes six months or more). You'll find that feta-style cheeses do not have the same flavor and texture as real Greek feta, which should be tangy and fresh, and can easily be sliced, cubed, or crumbled.

Buying and Storing Feta

Don't buy crumbled feta; this cheese is easy to crumble it yourself. We recommend buying feta cheese in pieces and in packages with some brine as feta keeps extremely well if stored in brine. If you buy it in a vacuum-packed plastic bag, transfer it to an airtight container with two teaspoons of salt dissolved in a cup of water. You can adjust the salt content of the cheese by adding more or less salt to the brine

How to Use Feta Cheese

Feta is low in fat and calories compared to other cheeses, and it contains a high amount of protein, B vitamins, phosphorus, and calcium. The Greeks eat it daily, and it's a part of the traditional Mediterranean diet. It can be fried or baked, used on pizza and pasta, enjoyed with eggs or in fruit salads, and can be made into luscious dips such as whipped feta with hearts of palm or Feta Dip with Scallions.

A popular and easy way to enjoy feta cheese is to bake it: Place a thick slice of feta cheese, and thinner slices of tomato and bell pepper rings on a piece of foil formed into a packet, drizzle with olive oil, and bake at 350 degrees or grill until the cheese is hot. Serve with bread. For a sweet version, bake the feta with a drizzle of honey in addition to olive oil and a pinch of black pepper or fresh thyme.

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