I’ve recently been pondering a trip to the Mediterranean, especially Greece, so I’ve started eating at all of the Greek restaurants in town to start getting a taste for that style of food and food preparation. There are a lot of common foods amongst all of the Mediterranean restaurants, especially Greek restaurants. The ingredient that intrigues me the most is feta cheese, which appears in many dishes in Greek culture and cuisine. 

Traditionally feta cheese is a white curd cheese that is brined and made from sheep’s milk or a combination of goat and sheep’s milk. There are other types of cheese called feta cheese that are made from cow’s milk, but the traditional style is made from the sheep’s milk or the combination milk. 

True feta cheese has its Designation of Origin, DOO (there are other terms used but they all begin with D) protection in the European Union. What that means is that to call something feta cheese it needs to be produced in the traditional way and in a particular place. Greek feta cheese can be made from pure sheep’s milk or a mixture of up to 30% goat’s milk with the rest being sheep’s milk. The European Union does a very good job of protecting their quality food products. These laws protect the names of wines. Champagne can only be called that if it comes from the Champagne region of France; if not it must be called Sparkling Wine. Other foods that have this protection include many cheeses, olives and olive oils, beers and balsamic vinegar. Europe is not the only area with this form of a “trademark.” Mexico has tequila that can only be made from agave of the Tequilana Weber blue variety. The United States has a few, not many. One example is Vidalia onions, which must come from Vidalia, Georgia. These designations are mainly due to soil conditions, rain, sun and preparation technique.

Feta cheese is used in many dishes across the Greek cuisine including the common Greek salad as well as a popular phyllo dough dish called Spanakopita, which means spinach pie. It also is considered a table cheese, which is added to many other dishes. Feta cheese can also be cooked as part of a grilled cheese sandwich or in omelets. If you’re going to use feta cheese, realize that it is saltier than many other cheeses that are commonly used, due to the brining of the curds. 

Feta cheese can have a maximum amount of moisture of 56% of its volume and a fat content of at least 43% and is traditionally categorized into two varieties. The first is firm and the second variety is soft. The firm is usually higher in quality and is used for crumbling while the soft is almost spreadable, and much cheaper than the firm variety. 

Feta cheese, which has about a 3% salinity content, is made like most other cheeses. The milk is heated up to kill any bacteria and when it cools down rennet is added, which allows the cream to coagulate. Rennet traditionally comes from the stomach lining of calves, but there are vegetable-based rennets made from a specific mold. The curds are then placed in a cheesecloth to allow the whey to drain out. The curds are then put in the molds for several days. Aging at room temperature can take several weeks and then the cheese is refrigerated for at least two months to create the end product.

Many other countries make feta-like cheeses with different standards, but the most common available in the United States is Greek. Other countries are mostly Eastern and Western European, but it is also common in Northern Africa.

When possible, you should always buy feta cheese in brine. Feta in brine means the cheese comes packed in a plastic container full of salt water liquid, which is compared to the pre-crumbled or vacuum-sealed varieties. Not only does the brine intensify flavor and add to feta’s life span, it also improves the cheese’s creamy texture. You can use that brine to marinate chicken, thin out dips, build flavor in broths and braising liquids, and it can be used to cook grains and beans.

There are some substitutes for feta cheese. They include Ricotta cheese which is the most similar. It’s crumbly like feta but is much less salty. There also is Halloumi from Greece. This has a similar texture but a much milder flavor than feta. Mexican Queso Fresco can also be a substitute, but it is moister. Or you can use Tofu as a substitute.