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This mild-mannered Italian-style cheese finally gets its chance to shine.
What You Need To Know
Provolone is unfairly regarded as the middle child of Italian cheeses: neither as punchy and popular as Parmigiano-Reggiano nor as mild and widely used as mozzarella. Yet iconic sandwiches such as the Philadelphia cheesesteak and the New Orleans muffuletta would be incomplete without slices of this aged cow’s-milk cheese; it’s also at home in pasta salads, stromboli, cheese bread, and even quesadillas.
Two Types of Provolone: Dolce and Piccante
Most of us know provolone as a young, slightly soft cheese that is very mild in flavor, but aged provolone can be sharp, almost bitter, and have a crumbly, semihard texture. In Italy, the former is known as provolone dolce (“sweet” provolone)and aged for less than four months, while the latter is called provolone piccante (“spicy” provolone) and aged for up to three years. Provolone dolce and provolone piccante also differ in the type of enzymes used in the beginning of cheese making to separate the curds from the whey—typically, dolce uses calf lipase (mild), while piccante uses goat lipase (gamy and pungent), and many American manufacturers opt for nonanimal enzymes to make a vegetarian-friendly cheese, which can vary in intensity of flavor depending on the source of the vegetarian enzymes, among other factors.
What makes all provolone similar, however, is the way it’s produced. Cow’s milk is heated with cultures and enzymes until the curds separate from the whey. The curds are strained, salted, and then plunged into hot water to make them flexible. Once removed from the water, they are stretched until they become smooth and elastic, a process known as pasta filata. If the method sounds similar to the way mozzarella is made, that’s because it is. However, unlike mozzarella, provolone contains added enzymes for flavor and is aged (plus, it’s always made from cow’s milk, while traditional mozzarella is made from buffalo’s milk).
Walk into a specialty cheese shop or an Italian deli and you may see provolone aging in the traditional way: hung from the ceiling, much like prosciutto and other cured meats. The ropes used to secure the provolone eventually give the cheese a characteristic bell-like shape. However, the provolone sold at most supermarkets rarely resembles its traditional counterpart: You buy it in shrink-wrapped wedges, presliced in packages, or cut to order at the deli counter. In fact, we tried provolone piccante and provolone dolce, both imported from Italy, and they were far different from their American counterpart in flavor, texture, and appearance (see “American Provolone versus Italian: What’s the Difference?”). Ultimately, we’d describe American provolone as a mild d...
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