Have you ever tasted Caciocavallo cheese? Scratch that. Have you ever seen it? Caciocavallo is one of the most peculiar Italian cheese varieties: it looks like one cheese, tastes like another, is sometimes referred to as a sub-type of a third, and there’s a fourth one that’s, arguably, a sub-type of Caciocavallo itself.
At first glance, this amalgamation of factors seems to indicate that Caciocavallo is only a regional peculiarity, one of many in Italy. In reality, all those factors put together have created a cheese with a distinct identity and memorable features that are rarely mistaken for others once a person has gotten a taste. It has a long history (one of the longest in its native country, and that statement is worth something when it comes to Italian cheese) and has, arguably, influenced more cheese varieties that have influenced it in return.
And yet, outside of its native Italy, Caciocavallo cheese doesn’t seem to be on people’s minds much. I’ve hardly ever heard anyone even mention it, much less add it to their homemade cheese and charcuterie boards, or use it in recipes. If you’re one of the people who’ve never heard of Caciocavallo before or have little idea how to use it, then hopefully, the article below will motivate you to try it.
What is Caciocavallo Cheese?
Caciocavallo is one of Italy’s oldest Pasta Filata cheese varieties from Southern Italy, most commonly produced in the Apennine Mountains. If the term Pasta Filata sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the same manner of cheese production used to make other, more famous, types of stretched-curd or pulled-card Italian cheese, like Mozzarella, Stracciatella, Provolone, Moliterno, and Scamorza.
While the name “Caciocavallo” translates to “horse cheese” or “cheese on horseback,” it has little to do with horses. Typically the cheese is made with either sheep or cow milk. While traditionally, Caciocavallo is made with whole raw milk, manufacturers, especially large commercial creameries, have switched to using pasteurized milk and starter cultures in the last couple of decades. This switch is seen as an attempt to maintain standardized cheese quality over the large-scale production process.
The Caciocavallo texture is hard to pin down as it changes as the cheese matures. Various sources describe Caciocavallo as a soft, semi-hard, or hard Italian cheese. All these descriptions are accurate. Fresh and young Caciocavallo is soft and springy, like Mozzarella. As it ages, the texture becomes harder and stringier, with extra matured Caciocavallo entirely fitting the description of hard cheese. Caciocavallo has an edible rind that is soft and barely noticeable while the cheese is young but hardens as time passes, becoming more rigid and less pleasant to consume (cheese connoisseurs, however, claim it adds to the texture and flavor).
Caciocavallo color changes the same. Unaged Caciocavallo is milky white, with yellow setting in as it matures. If a three-month-old Caciocavallo is pale yellow, then a two-years-old Caciocavallo is dark straw yellow, almost brownish near the rind.
How is Caciocavallo Cheese Made?
The origins of Caciocavallo are lost. There are apparently mentions of it as early as 500 BC (in the writings of Hippocrates), with the cheesemaking process described by the Roman writer Columella around 35 BC. If the sources are valid, this makes Caciocavallo one of the oldest known Italian cheese varieties and the oldest amongst Pasta Filata cheeses.
The production process is similar to that of other Pasta Filata cheese varieties: the milk is heated and mixed with a small amount of rennet to develop the curd. The curd is then cut and stirred to release the whey and reheated to maintain proper moisture. Once the curds are fully formed, the whey is drained, and they’re stretched and formed by hand. The fully-formed Caciocavallo is then chilled in cold water and transferred to a brining solution.
The name of the cheese name stems from the final step of the production process: while still fresh, the cheese is tied near the top with rope to make a “neck” and then suspended over a wooden rod called “Cavallo” (It. for “horse”) to mature.
The Types of Caciocavallo Cheese by Aging:
There are several milestones during the Caciocavallo maturation process where it can be considered fit for packaging and distribution:
Caciocavallo Semi-Stagionato or Half-Matured Caciocavallo ages typically for only around sixty days. This type of Caciocavallo is soft, still young, and fresh, with a springy texture and a sweet, creamy flavor. It’s the most common and least expensive type of Caciocavallo on the market.
Caciocavallo Stagionato or Fully Matured Caciocavallo is aged between two and four months (up to 120 days). During this period, it matures enough to transform into a semi-soft to semi-hard cheese, with a sharper, distinctly salty, and slightly spicy flavor.
Caciocavallo Extra Stagionato or Extra Mature Caciocavallo can be aged anywhere between four months and two years. Caciocavallo starts as a semi-hard cheese and slowly transforms into hard cheese during this period if the process lasts for over a year. The texture loses the springiness and instead turns dry and dense, slightly crumbly. The color darkens significantly, with two-year-old Caciocavallo a deep dark yellow, with browning near the hardened rind.
The Regional Caciocavallo Varieties:
Caciocavallo di Castelfranco is a specialty of Miscano Valley (Apenine Mountains). It’s the seminal type of Caciocavallo, following the abovementioned descriptions in the production and aging process.
Caciocavallo Silano PDO is the most famous type of Caciocavallo that’s been granted Protected Designation of Origin status by the EU. It can only be made on Sila, a mountainous plateau in Calabria, following strict production guidelines (including using locally sourced raw milk).
Caciocavallo Podolico is a regional variety of Caciocavallo from Irpinia (Campania Region), made exclusively with milk from the Podolica cows. It’s typically aged in herders’ huts for a period between three months to a year. It has a rather intense and acidic flavor, well-balanced with more fruity undertones. The texture is semi-hard, veering on hard, and the color is dark yellow. Caciocavallo Podolico has a smooth and thin but firm brown rind.
Caciocavallo Palermitano, also known as Caciocavallo di Godrano is a regional variety from Palermo and certain parts of Trapani, made from unpasteurized cow milk. Its most distinct characteristic is its shape: instead of a familiar pear-shaped cheese, you get a large rectangular block (weighing up to 26.5lbs). It’s traditionally aged over three months and has a pale yellow color, semi-hard texture, and a robust, spicy flavor.
Other Caciocavallo Varieties:
Flavored Caciocavallo is a type of Caciocavallo that’s blended with other ingredients while fresh and young and then left to age a bit to infuse the flavors. Caciocavallo Tartufata, infused with black truffles, has been particularly popular recently, but black pepper, chilis, herbs, and other ingredients are also common.
Caciocavallo Affumicata is smoked Caciocavallo. It has a dense, stringy texture and a darker color, with a harder, brown rind. Its flavor is somewhat deeper, if not necessarily sharper, with more umami elements.
Caciocavallo di Grotta is cave-aged Caciocavallo. Typically used in the production process of Caciocavallo Extra Stagionato, the cave-aging process lasts no less than six months and often reaches the two-year mark. Caciocavallo di Grotta is one of the, if not the rarest and most expensive, types of Caciocavallo.
What Does Caciocavallo Cheese Taste Like?
Caciocavallo flavor dramatically depends on its maturity level. The younger the cheese, the more mellow and sweeter it is.
Soft and barely-aged Caciocavallo is milky and creamy like Mozzarella.
The fully matured Caciocavallo has a rich and buttery, but sharper and saltier taste, with a distinct acidic tang and a bit of spice.
Extra matured Caciocavallo has a very complex and intensely umami flavor, very savory and notably spicy, with a sharp, salty bite of a cheese that’s been aged for years. The longer it matures, the more robust but also sharper and spicer the flavor becomes.
Caciocavallo and Mozzarella: Is Caciocavallo Just a Type of Mozzarella?
Caciocavallo branding, especially outside its native Italy, can be somewhat confusing. For example, sometimes it’s described as “a type of Mozzarella cheese.” Likely this is either an honest mistake, or Mozzarella is used as a substitute term for “Pasta Filata.”
Either way, no. Mozzarella and Caciocavallo are two independent types of cheese that share similarities in the production process but little else.
Caciocavallo vs. Scamorza: Looks the Same, Is the Same?
The pear shape of Caciocavallo cheese is reminiscent of another Pasta Filata - Scamorza. The most significant difference between the two (aside from the flavors) is likely the size. Scamorza cheese is typically quite small, while Caciocavallo size isn’t ubiquitous. While it can be produced in small sizes, it’s common to encounter a head of Caciocavallo cheese weighing between 3lbs to 7lbs and needs to be cut into wedges before being sold.
Caciocavallo vs. Provolone: What is the Difference?
If there’s a Pasta Filata that’s genuinely close to Caciocavallo, it’s Provolone cheese. Not only do they share similar production methods, but their texture and flavors are also quite similar.
Like Scamorza Bianca can substitute for Mozzarella in most dishes (with a caveat that it has a more robust flavor), so can Caciocavallo substitute for Provolone in most dishes and vice versa.
However, the aging process affects both Caciocavallo and Provolone, so when substituting one for the other, do remember that the more mature one will have a more robust flavor. The only caveat is that Caciocavallo, when matured, develops a distinct spicy flavor which isn’t usually present in Provolone at the same stage of aging.
What to Pair with Caciocavallo Cheese:
The young (or half-matured) Caciocavallo is typically served sliced as an appetizer, paired with delicate-flavored cured meats with sweeter undertones (like prosciutto Crudo or salchichon) and moderately sweet fruits (and fruit preserves). The ever-versatile fig and grapes are considered some of the classic pairings, but more moderately sweet quince jelly and apple jam are also common.
Fully matured Caciocavallo is also a good appetizer, though it’s more commonly used in complex dishes since its robust flavor is hard to overpower. The more mature the Caciocavallo, the better it does with sweeter flavors. Pair it with apricot or peach jam, sweet nuts like Marcona almonds and hazelnuts, and robust cured meats that aren’t particularly salty (since the cheese will make up for salt).
What is Caciocavallo Cheese Used For?
Caciocavallo is most often consumed raw, either as an appetizer with fruit and crackers or in a cold sandwich with cured meats. As it doesn’t melt particularly well, it’s not commonly used for hot paninis or for melting over a dish.
It is, however, sometimes shredded (to make melting easier) and added to thick sauces for pasta (including classic Pasta alla Silana or Ziti alla Palermitana) or strongly flavored meat dishes.
Grated, it’s also often added to various soups as an extra flavoring ingredient, with hearty vegetable soups with lots of root vegetables considered an ideal pairing.
How Long Does Caciocavallo Cheese Last?
Vacuum-packed, Caciocavallo can last up to a year depending on the producer, maturation, and storage (always store it in the refrigerator). Commercially packaged Caciocavallo will have the expiration date marked on the label. If the packaging is damaged, contact the manufacturer so they can assess the potential damage and give further instructions.
Once opened, it can last up to 3 months if it’s properly stored in an air-tight container and kept in the refrigerator.