Like most Americans, I grew up knowing three kinds of mozzarella: shredded (for use on English muffin pizzas), low-moisture blocks (for dicing and using in lasagna and other baked dishes), and Polly-O String Cheese (for use in school lunches). It wasn't until later that I learned about fresh mozzarella - with its soft texture and its slightly salty tang, it was like a completely different cheese. But this revelation was just a first step, and the "fresh" mozzarella I was enjoying still came from large producers like Polly-O and Belgioioso. I had yet to try mozzarella in its purest and most delicious form: mozzarella di bufala campana (buffalo mozzarella).
Buffalo mozzarella is a fresh cheese made from the milk of water buffalo (not the American bison many people visualize when they hear 'buffalo'). When made by hand, the process involves finely chopping the curd from buffalo milk, immersing it in hot water (to stiffen the curd), kneading the stiffened curd and separating it into individual balls. These balls are then soaked in brine (to absorb salt to help the cheese maintain its texture), and then stored in their own whey to preserve them for up to 24 hours. This production method can be traced back to at least the twelfth century, and it results in a cheese that is at once creamy and tangy, soft and chewy.
Eager to compare mozzarella di bufala side by side with cow's milk mozzarella, I bought both along with some prosciutto di Parma from A. Litteri, a tiny warehouse of a store in Northeast DC nearby to H Street and Gallaudet University. Litteri is the real deal - a more authentic version of the Italian Store in Arlington. They carry a wide range of imported Italian food items, a variety of wines at some very competitive price points, and selection of fresh-frozen pastas and sauces. But they are best known for their deli counter, which features a great variety of cold cuts, cheeses, and delicacies like stuffed peppers, assorted olives and salt-packed capers. They also offer some of the best made-to-order sandwiches available in the city. But I digress.
I returned home with my purchases and began my examination. At first glance, the two seemed quite similar - despite the differences in their sizes, the balls had similar colors and external textures. But there were two things that struck me about the mozzarella di bufala: it had significantly more irregularity along its surface, showing numerous strands of curd where the cow's milk mozzarella was largely smooth; and it felt softer when pressed, as though it were holding in quite a bit of liquid.
I then proceeded to cut the two mozzarellas in half, so I could take a look at their interiors. The differences between the two cheeses were more readily apparent at this point. The knife slid through the mozzarella di bufala with minimal resistance, and the cheese immediately began to release its moisture. As I had felt, there was quite a bit of whey stored within the cheese. In addition to their different moisture contents, the cheeses presented very different cross-sections. The buffalo mozzarella looked as though it were made from layered strands of curd that had been pressed together, while the cow's milk mozzarella gave a much more solid and uniform appearance. It held its shape better and required more force to slice through it without flattening it in the process.
Finally, I moved on to taste. I plated the two cheeses on either side of my prosciutto and noticed again the difference in texture and moisture (the mozzarella di bufala is on the left in the picture to the right). Then I took a bite from one of the slices of mozzarella di bufala, and I was stunned. I am a big fan of insalata caprese, a simple 'salad' of fresh basil, sliced tomatoes and mozarella drizzled in olive oil, but I often find that I need to add salt and pepper to fresh cow's milk mozzarella to give it any flavor beyond a fresh, light cheese taste. The buffalo mozzarella made it immediately clear that no such seasoning was necessary - it already boasted a salty tang that lingered even after the slice had all but melted away in my mouth. The wet texture and the freshness of the curds allowed them to dissolve quickly as I was chewing, something I had never experienced with fresh cow's milk mozzarella. This was mozzarella taken to an entirely different level.
A. Litteri's sells mozzarella di bufala campana in 250g (~8.5 ounces) balls for $8.99, but it is widely available in cheese shops, specialty stores and even grocery stores like Harris Teeter and Trader Joe's at a variety of price points. I would encourage you to think carefully about where you buy, however, as buffalo mozzarella is at its best very soon after it is made. If it has been sitting on a grocery store shelf for a week or more, its quality is very likely to suffer. This is a cheese best enjoyed as soon as possible, and your best bet for fresh mozzarella di bufala is a cheese shop or a trusted deli counter. Enjoy!