How can I buy the best feta cheese?
Feta cheese, a familiar presence on the Greek table, was originally made from sheep's milk or a mixture of sheep's and goat's milk. (Within the European Union, only cheese made in Greece from a mixture of sheep’s and goat’s milk can be legally called feta.) While many of the smaller, artisanal cheesemakers that have become increasingly popular in this country continue to observe this practice, the feta you find in the supermarket is almost certainly made by a large producer using pasteurized cow’s milk that has been curdled, shaped into blocks, sliced (feta is Greek for “slice”), and steeped in a brine. Feta can range from soft to semihard and has a tangy, salty flavor.
To see how much of a difference we might find between supermarket and artisanal feta, we purchased some of both. At the supermarket we purchased two blocks, one sitting on a Styrofoam tray and wrapped in plastic, as is much of the feta sold in the supermarket, the other in a Cryovaced package that also contained a small amount of brine. Both were made from cow's milk. The artisanal cheese we purchased was made from sheep's milk and came sitting in a puddle of brine in a plastic container.
Much to our surprise, the tasters' favorite was the Cryovaced cheese. Far from being dry and chalky, it was moist, creamy, fresh-tasting, and tangy—all the qualities one would expect of a good feta. Tasters' next favorite was the artisanal cheese, which was slightly drier and also more salty. Coming in a very distant third was the feta placed on a Styrofoam tray and shrink-wrapped. It had a chalky consistency and was nearly flavorless.
What can be learned from our tasting? Packaging feta cheese with some of the brine is key to a moist texture. In the package of Cryovaced feta, we could see the moisture, and the cheese, when pressed, was somewhat soft and yielding rather than hard and crumbly. The quintessential feta should be creamy, tangy, supple, and moist, and you are not going to find these qualities in a block of cheese that has been left to sit high and dry on a Styrofoam tray. Feta dries out quickly when removed from its brine, so always store feta in the brine it is packed in (we do not recommend buying precrumbled “dry” feta). One final note: It's a good idea to rinse feta packed in brine just before serving to remove excess salt.