In "Where Zeus Became a Man," author Sabine Ivanovas describes myzithra as "the most sensuous cheese of the world." It's the most commonly eaten cheese on the Greek island of Crete, where feta is a relative newcomer. Cretans have been producing myzithra, a Controlled Denomination of Origin (DOC) whey cheese made from raw sheep's or goat's milk, for thousands of years. Cutting the full-fat milk with whey, the liquid that remains after milk curdles, reduces the fat content of the cheese by about 10 percent.
Source: Unpasteurized sheep's or goat's milk
Texture: Semi-soft and spreadable to hard
Color: Bright white
What Is Myzithra?
Written μυζήθρα in Greek, and pronounced mee-ZEETH-rah, this cheese follows the same progression as Italian ricotta and ricotta salata as it goes from fresh to aged. The young unsalted cheese tastes sweet and milky, similar to fresh ricotta or cream cheese. It's a soft, white, fluffy cheese commonly used in desserts. The salted aged version turns dry and crumbly, making it perfect for grating. Myzithra may also be labeled as anthotyros, a similarly produced cheese; the two differ slightly in that anthotyros can be made with cow's milk, and generally uses less whey in the production than myzithra.
Myzithra vs. Manouri
Myzithra combines whey left from production of hard cheeses with sheep's or goat's milk from animals that graze on the island of Crete. Manouri, though also a DOC cheese made in a similar style, specifically uses the whey from feta production; it may contain a higher percentage of fat than myzithra as cheesemakers often add heavy cream to the whey.
How Myzithra Is Made
Myzithra is made with a combination of raw milk and the whey from production of other sheep's and goat's milk cheeses. After bringing the milk to a boil, producers cut it with whey, generally at a ratio of about 7 parts milk to 3 parts whey. Rennet or an acidic ingredient such as lemon juice may also be added form the curds, which are gathered in cheesecloth and hung to drain for two or three days. The resulting soft cheese can be eaten immediately or rubbed with salt and aged until it hardens. The drained whey can be added to the next batch of myzithra to help kickstart the curds.
Types of Myzithra
Myzithra comes in three varieties, fresh (sweet), sour, and aged. Fresh myzithra is similar to farmer's cheese and ricotta, and generally sold in egg-shaped balls. Sometimes fresh myzithra is allowed to ferment slightly, resulting in sour myzithra, also known as xinomyzithra (ξινομυζήθρα ksee-no-mee-ZEE-thrah). Aged myzithra, called myzithra xeri, is a hard, salty grating cheese with a buttery flavor similar to the style of ricotta salata.
Myzithra is a whey cheese, and while nothing matches the original, you can use mascarpone or ricotta in place of fresh myzithra, and ricotta salata, Parmesan, or Pecorino Romano in place of aged myzithra.
Fresh and sour myzithra are used in baked desserts such as Greek cheesecake and sweet cheese pastries, and can also be added to cooked dishes that call for cheese. Aged myzithra is used as a grating cheese for pasta dishes, soups, and vegetable casserole dishes, and also as an ingredient in pasta sauces.
It can be difficult to find myzithra in the United States; check Greek grocers or specialty cheese shops, or look online. Store fresh myzithra in the refrigerator and use it within a day or two. Aged myzithra, more commonly available in the United States, can last for up to a year in an airtight container.
Greek cookbooks make prolific use of fresh and aged myzithra. You can also use it in place of fresh or aged ricotta in many recipes.
Fresh myzithra does not have a rind, but as it ages, the cheese develops a natural hard rind similar to what you would find on Parmesan. While it's technically edible, it generally does not enhance the eating experience. You can use it to flavor soups and sauces, though. Simply toss it in the pot while you cook and discard it before you serve.