Close your eyes and tell me the first association you get when you hear the word Feta. I bet over 90% of you thought Greek cheese.
And that’s perfectly understandable! Feta is likely the most famous Greek cheese (or, indeed, Greek product) in the world. And the Greeks have gone a long way to ensure it’s strongly associated with its native country: Feta cheese has been granted a PDO (protected designation of origin) status by the EU, meaning Greece is the only place it can be produced at.
Only there’s a tiny problem with it: there are plenty of producers outside the EU borders, from small artisans to large creameries, putting Feta cheese on the market. On the other hand, there are Feta varieties not branded as such within the EU borders but with apparent similarities to the Greek cheese.
With some the exact copies of the original flavor and texture, and others veering away from the Greek Feta, you might want to know how exactly to the pin which Feta cheese you’re eating (and if it’s Feta at all). So we should probably start by answering the question of “what is Feta cheese” in the first place.
What is Feta Cheese?
Feta is a white cheese matured in brine, originally from Greece. Greek Feta has no rind. Its texture is soft, compact, and springy, easy to slice, cube, or crumble.
As mentioned above, authentic Feta is exclusively Greek cheese, as the EU has granted it a PDO status. Greek Feta cheese is made either from sheep milk or a mixture of sheep and goat milk (goat milk cannot exceed 30% of the overall mass, and it’s usually kept well underneath that mark).
Greek Feta is traditionally made with unpasteurized milk. However, many producers are moving onto pasteurized milk due to the complicated process associated with distributing and exporting unpasteurized milk products. But as the micro-organisms killed during the pasteurization process are necessary to give the Feta its signature acidity, a starter culture must be added to the milk before cheesemakers can proceed.
The cheesemaking process itself is simple: let the milk cool down to 95 °F, add rennet, and let it coagulate. Once the curds have formed, chop them, drain the whey, salt them, and place them in special molds. Let the salt infuse for several days, and then add brine. The cheese can be left in brine for 2 to 12 months.
These brining molds play a significant role in the final flavors the cheese will acquire. Feta brined in wooden barrels will taste different from Feta brined in metal.
The Different Types of Feta Cheese:
Feta may be a PDO-protected name within the EU borders nowadays. Still, various countries were making similar white, crumbly, tangy cheese long before the Greeks managed to cement themselves as the true Feta overlords. These cheese varieties may sometimes be branded as Greek cheese, White cheese, or Feta-style cheese, but don’t expect them to be precisely the same, especially if the Feta is produced outside EU borders, where the PDO denomination isn’t always honored.
Greek Feta is, undoubtedly, the seminal Feta variety in Europe. Made with unpasteurized milk, either sheep milk or a mixture of sheep and goat milk (typically at a ratio below 7:3). The more goat milk used in the mixture, the springier and crumblier the texture. Greek Feta cheese has a vibrant, buttery, and creamy mouthfeel and a sharp, tangy flavor.
Danish Feta is the one that, apparently, started the entire hubbub around Greek Feta acquiring PDO status. Danish White cheese, as it’s usually referred to these days, is made with cow milk. It has a smoother, softer, creamier texture and a slightly sour flavor.
American Feta: American producers aren’t beholden to EU laws regarding Feta manufacturing, so they often boldly label their Greek Feta-inspired product simply Feta; however, Greek cheese is also typical. American Feta can be made from cow, sheep, or goat milk, and the milk is more likely to be pasteurized than not. American Feta from large creameries tends to be drier and crumblier than other Feta varieties, often without the creamy mouthfeel and tanginess dominating the flavor.
Bulgarian Feta is similar to American in that there’s no strict guideline on what type of milk should be used. It can be a cow, sheep, goat, or a mixture. It can be pasteurized or unpasteurized. The flavor profile is also undetermined: some varieties can be pretty mellow, while others are much tangier and saltier than Greek or American Feta. As Bulgary is a member of the EU, they honor Greek Feta PDO status, and Bulgarian Feta isn’t usually called Feta but Sirene. Bulgarian Feta’s texture is firmer and springier than that of Greek, and it doesn’t crumble as easily.
Israeli Feta is most often made from sheep milk, and it’s the most mellow out of all Feta varieties, with only mild tanginess and low salt content. Israeli Feta has a smooth but firm texture that doesn’t lend itself particularly well to crumbling but makes it easy to slice and cube.
French Feta is likely the most complicated case on the list. Since the French aren’t allowed to label the cheese as Feta, it’s primarily known under the name of Valbreso. Only, unlike in the case of Bulgarian Sirene, Valbreso isn’t an alternative name for the cheese; it’s the name of the producer. Valbreso is the most prominent Feta-style cheese producer in France. French Feta is made with Lacaune sheep’s milk (if you remember, that’s the sheep breed used for Roquefort production). It has a softer and creamier texture that Greek Feta and a milder, less tangy flavor (though it’s sharper than Israeli Feta).
If you come across Greek-style cheese from the UK, Australia, or other EU countries like Italy or Germany, they’re likely trying to emulate Feta cheese (and might even be branded as such in non-EU territories). However, it’s been noted over and over that their texture and flavor significantly differ from the Greek original.
Goat Cheese vs. Feta: Is Feta "Goat Cheese"?
No, Feta is not goat cheese, or at the very least, it’s not something that any cheese expert would call Chevre anytime soon. At best, goat milk makes up for only around ⅓ of Feta cheese content, and often not even that.
If anything, Feta cheese could be classified as sheep cheese, like Pecorino. But even that classification is somewhat of a moot point, considering non-Greek Feta cheese has no strict production guidelines and can be made from either sheep, cow, or a mixture of sheep and goat milk.
Goat cheese and Feta varieties do share certain similarities: they’re all white cheese with a creamy mouthfeel and distinct acidic notes, but that’s generally where the similarities end. The texture and overall flavor profiles significantly differ.
What Does Feta Cheese Taste Like?
All Feta varieties are supposed to be rich, buttery (characteristic of sheep milk), creamy, tangy, and salty. Feta is a complex cheese, regardless of how mellow the overall flavor is.
The authentic Feta from Greece is on the saltier and tangier side of the spectrum, with the undertones slightly reminiscent of lemon. In comparison, American Feta lacks the creaminess but retains the savory flavor profile, with a robust acidic tang.
Does Feta Cheese Melt?
It depends on what form the Feta cheese is in. Cubes or slices will not melt but only soften. Depending on how long they’re kept under heat, they’ll soften to become gooey on the inside and stretch when pulled apart - but they won’t change the shape.
Crumbled Feta fares somewhat better. While it, once again, won’t change the shape much, smaller crumbles visually resemble melted cheese better, and they do feel like it once you’ve bitten into them.
How Long Does Feta Cheese Last?
It’s all in the packaging. In more than one way, to be exact. First of all, commercially packaged Feta cheese will likely come with a best-by or expiration date printed on the label. In that case, all you need to do is follow those instructions: vacuum-sealed packaging will preserve the cheese for a long time, as long as it isn’t damaged (if you notice any damage, immediately contact the manufacturer for assessment and further instructions).
Once the packaging is unsealed, Feta cheese will start to deteriorate rapidly, remaining fit for consumption for about a week. You can, however, significantly prolong its shelf life by submerging it in homemade brine. Submerged Feta will last between three and four weeks.
How Do You Store Feta Cheese?
Whether submerged in brine or not, Feta cheese should be kept in a refrigerator, either in an airtight container or tightly wrapped.
If you don’t need to dramatically prolong Feta’s life expectancy, simply place it in an airtight container or a jar, or wrap it in plastic wrap.
If you do want it to last longer than a week, place it in a container and pour a simple brine over it before tightening the lid. You just need to dissolve 1 tsp of salt per 1 cup of water. That’s it.
Can You Freeze Feta Cheese?
Freezing is the only option if you need to prolong Feta cheese shelf life past its original expiration date. Feta will remain fit for consumption for around three months in the freezer.
The good news is that its taste will primarily stay intact after thawing if a bit less salty and creamy. The bad news is that it will noticeably affect the texture of the cheese. Freezing takes a lot of moisture out of the cheese, so your Feta will become drier, crumblier, and a touch airier.
Not to say that any of it will change the cheese to a point when it becomes unpleasant, but to compensate for the changes, it would be best to use Feta in combination with other ingredients, crumbling it over salads, adding it to pasta sauce, you get the gist.
If your Feta is pre-sliced or crumbled, you should pre-freeze it first: lay it out on a parchment or silicon in a single layer and firm it up in a freezer for a few hours until transferring to the airtight container. This way, the cheese won’t be sticking to each other, and you’ll be able to thaw portions at your discretion.
Make sure to use the thawed Feta the same day or the next day, at the most.
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