Authentic feta is a soft and crumbly brined cheese from Greece traditionally made with sheep's milk, which naturally contains two times the fat of cow's milk. Modern standards, regulated by protected designation of origin (PDO) status, allow producers to blend sheep's milk with up to 30 percent goat's milk. Feta has been around for centuries, and nearly every Greek meal incorporates feta cheese in some manner. In the U.S., cheesemakers produce a feta-style cheese using cow's milk, but quality can vary significantly. Feta is lower in fat and calories than aged cheeses such as cheddar or Parmesan and has more calcium and B vitamins than soft cheeses such as ricotta or cottage cheese. However, the brine results in a high sodium content, so feta should not be consumed on a salt-restricted diet.
- Origin: Greece
- Availability: In nearly every U.S. grocery store
- Aging: Brine-cured for four to six weeks
- Flavor: Salty and tangy
What Is Feta?
Feta is a soft cheese made from whole sheep's milk or a combination of sheep's milk and goat's milk. In Greece, feta is cured in a salty brine. Known as a pickled cheese, its flavor becomes sharper and saltier with age and the cheese becomes more firm. Feta is creamy white in color with small holes and a crumbly texture. It normally comes in square cakes with no rind, but you can also find pre-crumbled feta packaged in airtight containers without brine and with or without added seasonings. It costs more than other common cheeses, but a little goes a long way.
How Feta Is Made
Feta cheese is so popular in Greece that very little gets exported. In fact, most of the feta cheese imported to the U.S. comes from Italy. Nowadays, many countries produce forms of feta, including Australia, Denmark, Germany, and of course, the United States. However, modern-day mass production often relies on cow's milk and may use skimmed milk or partially skimmed milk to reduce the fat content.
In Greece, traditional production methods start with the addition of rennet and casein to pasteurized or raw sheep's milk, goat's milk, or a blend of the two. Once the milk thickens, the curd is separated, pressed into molds, and drained of excess whey. Cheesemakers cut the feta into smaller blocks (feta means "sliced" in Greek), then salt and dry them for two days before submerging them in brine, where they age for one week to several months.
Unfortunately, due to the great demand for feta cheese in Greece and restrictions on unpasteurized milk, it's difficult to find the real thing outside of Greece; if you do, it will be pricey. You can make your own feta cheese at home out of goat's milk.
Ricotta cheese makes the closest substitute for feta in terms of flavor, although it's generally less salty, but the moist texture doesn't quite match. Salty cotija cheese crumbles like feta and makes a good option for tossing into a salad. A fresh or slightly aged goat cheese can also stand in for feta.
Feta crumbles easily, making it a good choice to include in salads and as an alternative to shredded mozzarella on pizzas and flatbreads. It also tastes great sprinkled on roasted vegetables of all kinds.
When using feta in uncooked dishes, such as appetizers, allow it to come to room temperature to get the best flavor. You can serve it on an appetizer plate along with slices of crusty baguette, olives, and sliced meats. Or blend it into a dip with a little lemon juice and oil.
Feta softens in hot dishes but never fully melts, a good quality for adding texture in addition to flavor in baked casseroles, savory pastries, and stews such as the traditional stifado. You could also use it in a quiche or other style of savory pie. Feta makes a good option for stuffed burgers and pairs especially well with lamb.
Feta dries out and sours quickly in improper storage conditions. It remains fresh for several months if you keep it continually submerged in the brine. Packaged feta often includes some brine, but if you inadvertently drain it, you can simply mix some up to store any leftovers. Generally, stick to a ratio of 1 teaspoon kosher salt per cup of water, making more or less as needed. You can freeze unopened packages of the dry crumbled feta—the kind that's available at most grocery stores—for a few months without too much loss of quality.
There are many ways to include feta in your menu, especially if you want to add a Mediterranean twist to a recipe.