Taste in Israeli couscous salad
Taste in spanakopita
The Greeks have been perfecting feta cheese since Homer’s time—the early process for making it is mentioned in The Odyssey. Thousands of years later, Greek immigrants brought feta to the United States in a wave of migration that started in the 1880s. It remained a specialty item for most of the last century, but in recent years it has become as common in American refrigerators as cheddar. In the test kitchen, we add it to salads, pastas, dips, pizza, and more.
This rise in feta’s popularity has meant more options to choose from—and, as we discovered, those options can vary wildly. First, there was the source to consider: We found top-selling cheeses that were made in Greece, France, and the United States. We also learned that in the European Union, only cheeses made in Greece according to specific Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) requirements, including being composed of at least 70 percent sheep’s milk with any remainder made up of goat’s milks, may be labeled “feta.” In the United States, there are no labeling requirements for feta, so any cheese—whether it’s made with sheep’s, goat’s, or cow’s milk or any combination thereof, and no matter where it’s manufactured—can be labeled “feta.”
Of the eight cheeses we tasted, priced from $0.41 to $1.19 per ounce, three were authentic Greek fetas bearing the PDO stamp, including our former winner from Mt. Vikos. Four other products were domestic cheeses made from cow’s milk. And the eighth was a sheep’s-milk cheese from France. Our question: How would the imitations compare with the real deal from Greece? To find out, we sampled the cheeses plain, crumbled into couscous salad, and—to see how they behaved when heated—baked in Greek spinach and feta pie, spanakopita.
A Bettah Feta
Differences among the cheeses were apparent from the first bite, particularly when it came to saltiness. Sampled plain, all four of the American cow’s-milk cheeses were markedly saltier than the Greek and French cheeses, eliciting comments such as “salt bomb!” or “[tastes] like I took a swig of ocean water.” Sure enough, these cheeses had some of the highest sodium contents in the lineup (ranging from 320 to 430 milligrams per 1-ounce serving), though that overt salinity mellowed once the cheeses were baked with spinach and phyllo.
But beyond saltiness is where the differences got interesting. Richness was one factor; not surprisingly, we liked decadent-tasting fetas with relatively high fat contents. Our first- and second-place cheeses boasted 7 and 6 grams of fat per ounce, respectively, compared with just 4 grams in some others. In addition, whereas many of the cheeses exhibited simple “milky” flavors, the two front-runners were remarkably complex, with “savory” “barnyard” notes as well as “lemony,” toasty,” “nutty,” and “grassy” nuances.
Texture also influenced our preferences. The French cheese was so soft that it was “spreadable.” Not bad—but not what we want in feta. The American cheeses tended to be dry and “pebbly,” which we found acceptable but nothing to get too excited about. But once again, we found a feature to love in the two high-fat cheeses: a lush, moist texture that retained its shape in salad and spanakopita.
It turns out that the Greeks really have perfected the crafting of feta. The manufacturers of our two favorites, Real Greek and Dodoni, nailed it: Their cheeses offer the right balance of salt, a luxurious yet firm texture, and an impressive range of bold, gamy, and complex flavors. So what are these Greek producers doing differently?
All feta begins with the same basic process: Rennet (a natural enzyme) is added to the milk, causing it to separate into curds and whey. The curds are placed in a mold or cloth bag to freely drain. The drained curds are then cut into large pieces (féta means “a slice” in Greek). Here’s where the process diverges. In Greece, these blocks of cheese are salted and left to sit for a day or two, after which they are placed in brine and left to ripen for a period of at least two months; Greek producers believe that these steps create more complex flavor in the cheese. In contrast, according to Dean Sommer, cheese and food technologist at the University of Wisconsin–Madison’s Center for Dairy Research, commercial feta producers in the United States skip the dry-salting step and place the drained curds directly in the brine, sometimes in the very containers in which the feta will be sold so that salt uptake (the main flavor boost in the cow’s-milk cheeses) happens on the way to the consumer.
Our science editor confirmed that these different methods will affect the final flavor of the cheese. The Greek producers’ dry-salting step allows time for the cheese to absorb the salt and for flavorful bacteria and aromatic compounds to grow on the surface of the cheese and be readily absorbed, while the aging period in the brine allows for enzymes from the bacteria, the rennet, and the milk itself to create and contribute additional flavor molecules.
And then, of course, there’s the milk used by the Greek producers in our lineup—100 percent sheep’s milk for Real Greek and a combination of sheep’s and goat’s milks for Dodoni. Sheep’s milk has twice as much fat as cow’s milk (6 to 8 percent by weight compared with 3 to 4 percent). Moreover, both sheep’s and goat’s milks contain three fatty acids with names that sound like Greek islands (caprioc, caprylic, and capric), which lend them gamy, savory flavors not found in cow’s milk.
But there’s also a terroir factor that makes Greek fetas stand out. According to a report by the World Intellectual Property Organization, sheep and goats in Greece consume a more diverse diet than other animals around the Mediterranean; the hillsides where they graze are covered in at least 6,000 different types of plant life, including numerous species that don’t grow anywhere else, and that translates to milk with uniquely complex flavor.
Greek Formula for Great Feta
It’s not just folklore that Greeks make great feta cheese. Tradition—and Protected Designation of Origin requirements—ensure cheese that is rich and uniquely flavorful.
Both of our top fetas are so good that we would be happy eating them simply topped with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of black pepper. Made from sheep’s and goat’s milks, our runner-up from Dodoni had the boldest flavor profile in the lineup. Our winner, Real Greek Feta ($13.99 per pound), was marvelously complex when baked, in salad, and on its own but was a little less funky and gamy. Surprisingly, our former winner, Mt. Vikos, also produced in Greece, finished near the bottom of the rankings. When compared with the new Greek cheeses, it simply wasn’t as rich, tangy, or boldly flavored.