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The Cheese Question the Experts Can't Agree On

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I learned a lot at the New York Culinary Experience, including that I had not been paying nearly enough (read: any) attention to the murky water fresh mozzarella comes bobbing in.

According to Chef Missy Robbins of Lilia in Brooklyn, who taught a class of students to make freshly pulled mozzarella, this water needs to be changed daily in order to keep the cheese as fresh as possible. (First tofu, now mozzarella? It was the second time in a period of three days that I was told to treat food like a bouquet of flowers.)

So, finding #1: Change fresh mozzarella's water daily.

Photo by James Ransom

Convinced that I had stumbled upon a super-simple cheese preservation tip that would be news to many people (even Kristen Miglore, our fearless arbiter on all things Genius, admitted to tearing off hunks of fresh mozz, then letting the rest languish in exactly the same environment it came home from the store in), I set out to do some fact-checking.

I contacted Elena Santogade, the Regional Sales Manager for Grafton Village Cheese, who gave a slightly more complicated recommendation: Before you simply replace the liquid with fresh water, you have to make sure that the fresh water is fresh water rather than brine (salt plus water). Taste the liquid, said Elena:

If the mozz is unsalted and the solution is plain water, then changing the water out with fresh water will keep the mozz from getting slimy on the outside and will also keep it from going rancid as fast (only by a matter of hours though). If it's a salted mozzarella, if and when you change out the brine solution for fresh plain water, it's going to draw salt out of the cheese, resulting in a less flavorful product when you do eat it. Adding a little kosher salt to fresh water (maybe around a tablespoon per pint) will keep things mostly in balance.

Finding #2: Change fresh mozzarella's liquid, be it brine or water, daily.

But does it really need to happen every day? Elena's answer of "if and when" suggested no, and when I checked in with Mary Karlin, author of Artisan Cheese Making at Home, she confirmed that changing the liquid "shouldn't be necessary if the cheese has been purchased within the 'use by' dates and consumed accordingly. It is best to consume the cheese within one week once opened." But...

If the liquid smells slightly 'off,' or on the cusp of going sour, it should be changed. Replace with the same type of liquid the cheese came in. (The liquid will smell funky before the cheese itself goes south in texture or taste.) Water should be non-chlorinated and if liquid is to be salted, make a lightly salted solution in a glass jar. Ratio should be 1 quart water : 1/2 ounce kosher or sea salt. Dissolve thoroughly. Place the cheese in clean (airtight) container and cover with the fresh liquid. Cover tightly and refrigerate. This will refresh the mozzarella to a point that it can keep for a few more days.

Emiko Davies, author of Florentine and our resident expert on all things Italian (mozzarella falls under her purview), agreed that there's no need to change the liquid right away: Simply keep it in the liquid it came in (if you want, you can transfer it to a lidded bowl or a small airtight container where it will be at least half-submerged).

Photo by James Ransom

Finding #3: Change the liquid—but only if it smells funky—and replace like with like.

I was tempted to take these three findings (along with my rudimentary understanding of osmosis) and summarize them into a theory: Taste the water your fresh cheese comes in—if the water is salted, replace it with salted water; if it's not salted, replace it with fresh water. If you buy salted mozzarella, it's not a good idea to put it in unsalted water (the same is true with unsalted mozzarella and salted water) because of the movement of the sodium—either out of or into the cheese.

My very scientific explanation of the relationship between cheese, salt, and water.
My very scientific explanation of the relationship between cheese, salt, and water.

Niki Achitoff-Gray, who wrote about making fresh mozzarella for Serious Eats, corroborated: "Your point about osmosis makes sense, assuming you want to maintain the flavor of the cheese you've purchased."

But, Niki said, she prefers things on the salty side and would "probably choose to add salt to the water of a vacuum-sealed cheese in either case [...]. But if you're looking for that totally unadulterated, milky-fresh flavor, you might want to cut salt no matter what it was stored in before. Then again, I'm not totally sure what that might do to its texture."

Photo by Emiko Davies

So Niki might add unsalted cheese to salted water (she also introduced another variable: vacuum-sealed cheese—which Mary Karlin said not to store in water, but rather to store in an airtight container). And when I consulted Di Palo's Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy, I found that their recommendation also challenged my theory:

If you aren't going to eat your mozzarella right away, I recommend you buy it unsalted and put it in a bowl of water with a teaspoon of salt. (Salted mozzarella in water becomes mealy and mushy.) Cover the bowl to protect it from outside flavors and refrigerate it—it will last several days.

Finding #4: Unsalted cheese can be put in salted water, but salted cheese should not be put in water (of any kind?).

But when I called the Di Palo storefront and asked about storing their fresh mozzarella, I was told that the best option was to leave the cheese wrapped in the paper it comes in.

And Murray's Cheese gave me a similar answer, but suggested plastic wrap rather than paper:

Finding #5: Ignore all of that advice and simply do not refrigerate your mozzarella.

So you get a ball of mozzarella...

  • If it's vacuum-packed, Niki Achitoff-Gray would say to add it to salted water; Mary Karlin would say to put it in an airtight container.
  • If it comes in liquid, you should replace it if it starts to smell funky.
  • But maybe you should sample the liquid it before it gets to that stage, because when it does go sour, you'll want to replace it with the same solution (and you probably won't be interested in tasting it at that point).
  • If it's a ball of mozzarella, no liquid, and it's unsalted, you can put it in salt water. But if it's salted, you should not put it in fresh water. You can wrap it in paper or wrap it in plastic or...

I'm lost—are you?

And despite the complicated flow-chart of mozzarella storage I had mapped out from expert advice, all of the consultants agreed on one thing: The problem is solved if you eat your cheese as fast as possible.

Before Emiko gave any advice on storing mozzarella, she gave a disclosure: "It's worth saying [that] it should just be eaten as fresh as possible." Di Palo's Guide to the Essential Foods of Italy advises even more urgency: "Unless you're cooking with it, fresh cow's milk mozzarella should be eaten the same day it's made. Ideally it should be consumed within hours, so that you can really enjoy its wonderfully milk texture."

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Finding #6: Never buy fresh mozzarella unless you can commit to eating it fast.

But still, all hope is not lost: Your refrigerated mozzarella can still be saved! But that's not so straightforward either.

The nice people at Di Palo's told me that fresh-made mozz will never be as milky after refrigeration (the butterfat is reabsorbed into the cheese and becomes a solid again)—but that letting the cheese sit out for 20 minutes on the counter will make it creamier (though not milky). If you do buy unsalted mozzarella and store it in salted water, transfer the whole bowl or container to the counter when you're ready to serve it: Pour a little warm water into the cold liquid and let everything sit for a little bit, about 10 to 15 minutes. Kenji J. López-Alt conducted an in-depth study of resuscitating refrigerated mozzarella on Serious Eats, concluding that it "an hour-long soak in a warm, salted milk bath" was the solution.

(And once you soak your mozz in a milky bath, get it a pedicure! Get it a haircut! Do all the things you'd do to instantly ripen an avocado.)

There is one upside to fresh mozzarella that's been refrigerated, according to the Di Palo book: "It will also lose some water, which means day-old mozzarella is better for cooking things that you don't want to get soggy, like pizza, eggplant Parmigiano, or even a Caprese salad—I don't like salads to get milky from the cheese."

Or just freeze it for up to six weeks: Wrap very fresh mozzarella in plastic wrap, then defrost it slowly in the fridge the night before you want to use it.

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Finding #7: Or just never buy fresh mozzarella at all?

There are so many other less fussy cheeses, right?

Finding #8: Or just keep doing what you're doing.

I've had no real issue with storing mozzarella cheese in the past (have you?). I'm tempted to think that whatever action I'm taking (which is no action at all) is working pretty well for me, anyway.

I bet you have the answer to the question of mozzarella storage. If so, tell us in the comments.

Tags: Cheese, Mozzarella, Tips & Techniques, Long Reads