DIY Mozzarella for Caprese Stacked Salad

This article first appeared in the Oregon Wine Press, July 2014

As temperatures soar and curvy tomatoes ripen next to aromatic basil in gardens near and far, the season for the summer classic Caprese Salad is upon us again.

This simple dish originated in Campania, and boasts all the colors of the Italian flag. It’s all about peak of season flavor and freshness, like a taste of summer on a plate. This year, with basil and tomatoes from my garden, I decided to try my hand at DIY -Mozzarella to complement my homegrown bounty.

Luckily there are a plethora of great recipes in books and online. My local homebrew shop had supplies. Citric acid, animal rennet, a coagulant, and Lipase, an optional flavor ingredient, in hand, I bought a gallon of fresh milk at the grocery.

My first experience using the most popular online recipe for “Homemade Mozzarella”, was a success, for the most part.

The transformation of milk from a liquid to solid form with the addition of a few simple ingredients and heat worked as described and was quite magical. My boys enjoyed the simple, edible science experiment and the resulting stretchy cheese.

Cheese with good texture while warm and a decent flavor emerged from the hour-long experiment. When cooled, it was tough and rubbery, but I was impressed with this easy test batch.

After consulting several more advanced recipes for refinements, including a texture-improving ice bath to chill the newly-made cheese, I set out to make my “photo shoot” cheese.

DIY Mozzarella collageInto the pot with the milk, gently heating to 55 degrees. Next, the citric acid which begins to curdle the milk. When the temperature reaches 90ish, diluted rennet is added, stirring up and down as directed.

Within a few seconds, the milk transforms, liquid to solid, as casein proteins bind together in a matrix, capturing fats and releasing whey.

The curd mass shrinks and pulls away from the sides of the pot as the heat rises in a slow-motion series of barely visible micromovements, yet it’s clear, something is happening. As temperature increases, the curd contracts and everything is looking good – until I scoop and drain the curds.

They are different, softer and less firm. Ever the optimist, I drain them into a microwave safe dish and briefly heat them. A few more rounds of heating and draining ought to result in a smooth, stretchy, taffy-like curd which is quickly kneaded into satiny pillows of cheese.

Unfortunately things did not go as planned. The microwave released more moisture each time, but never brought the curd together. I made a batch of something approaching ricotta.

Unsuccessful DIY Mozzarella

I knew enough to suspect the culprit was likely Ultra-Pasteurized milk, but mystified because it was the exact same brand I purchased previously and which worked flawlessly two days before.

After three more failed attempts – all with milks that claimed not to be ultra-pasteurized – I was almost resigned to failure.

My last batch, using ultra premium, un-homogenized milk from 800 miles away, I achieved my goal of Fresh, but not so local, Mozzarella. Working with non-homogonized milk – the kind where cream rises to the top – was not without its challenges as cream melted in butter-like pools atop the milk rather than being integrated into the cheese. The resulting cheese was rather tough and somewhat less flavorful, but at least it held together and stretched. A small victory.

If you are a DIY-enthusiast with access go good, local milk, go ahead and give it a try. It’s worth it for the experience and a great summer science experiment to do with kids. Just make sure to have a ricotta recipe or two ready.

Facebook Coverpage - Caprese Stacks & DIY Fresh Mozz

Recipe | Caprese Stacked Salad

Whether accompanied by DIY cheese or cheese from the market, taste summer on a plate with these super simple Caprese Stacks.

  • Slice vine ripe plum tomatoes
  • Stack with slices of mozzarella, fresh basil and a sprinkle of salt.
  • Drizzle with olive oil and Balsamic vinegar
  • Serve immediately