There are certain ingredients that are so strongly associated with a particular country or culture that just eating them makes you immediately want to go on vacation. We’re talking about a perfect Italian cacio e pepe pasta, a fresh Vietnamese spring roll, an amazing Argentinian steak –- or a creamy, salty, briny, crumbly chunk of Greek feta cheese.
Forget about Swiss cheese and blue cheese; real Greek feta tastes like sunshine reflecting off the white walls of Santorini. Crumbled over roasted vegetables, added to a salad, combined with spinach — is there any dish feta can’t improve? Sure, lots of cultures and countries have really great white cheese; just think of Mexican cotija or Italian mozzarella. However, there’s something special about feta, and we’re not just talking about the honey-roasted kind. But why exactly is feta so strongly associated with Greece? And how does it get that distinctive tangy taste? Fix yourself a cheesy snack and prepare to learn the untold truth of feta cheese.
What is feta cheese?
Did you know that feta cheese has something in common with champagne? They have both been given the Protected Designation of Origin status as per the European Union quality scheme (via European Commission). The EU quality scheme policy was set up to protect the names of products as they move through the international supply chain. When consumers buy champagne, feta, and plenty of other items, they know that the product retains the uniqueness of its region and the knowledge of the artisans that produced it. For genuine feta cheese, its unique region is Greece and it has been produced locally for over two thousand.
When you think of cheese, you might think of one made from cow’s milk before you think of sheep or goat, and it’s true that many famous kinds of cheese have a bovine source. But as the European Commission website explains, the rocky steep hills and dry climate of Greece simply aren’t suitable for herds of cows. However, they’re perfect for hardy, nimble sheep and goats.
The animals spend their time grazing on native flora which provides their diet with biodiversity that is reflected in the flavor of the cheese. This variety as well as the traditional production methods means that real feta can only be made in Greece. Specifically, it is produced in Macedonia, Thrace, the Peloponnese, Epirus, Thessaly, Central Greece, and the islands of Cephalonia and Lesvos, according to Food Fun Travel.
How is feta cheese made?
According to Healthline, Greek feta cheese is made from the milk of native sheep and goats. It can either be made entirely of sheep’s milk or a mixture of sheep and goat’s milk (but no more than 30% of the latter). The milk is pasteurized, and lactic acid starter cultures are used to separate the curds and the whey. We eat the curds which are made of the protein casein.
Once separated, rennet is added and the curd is placed in molds for a full 24 hours to firm up. It is then cut into the familiar cubes we know and love, salted, and stored in wooden or metal containers for about three days. Finally, it is placed in a saltwater brine and refrigerated to mature for two months. The feta is packaged and sold in the brine to preserve freshness, providing its distinctive salty taste. The flavor also comes from the animals’ grazing behavior, since the plant life in Greece is one of a kind (via European Commission).
The history of feta
Feta cheese has a history that stretches back over two millennia, and its production has been hinted at in ancient stories. In Greek mythology, Apollo’s son Aristaios was in charge of teaching humans how to make cheese, according to Real Greek Feta. The source explains that one of the earliest mentions of cheesemaking was in Homer’s "Odyssey." The Cyclops accidentally produced cheese by transporting sheep milk in bags made of animal stomachs.
According to Culture Trip, feta cheese was referred to as prosphatos in Byzantine times, translated from Greek as meaning recent or fresh. The name feta only originated in the 17th century and it comes from the Italian word fetta, meaning slice (via Greek Reporter). When we eat feta today, we are eating a cheese that the ancient Greeks would have recognized. As Real Greek Feta explains, many Greeks emigrated in the 20th century, finding new homes in the United States, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and Germany. Of course, they took their cuisine with them and created several new markets for feta cheese, leading to its popularity across the globe.
Feta in other countries
Even though it is a protected product, not all supermarket feta or feta-like cheeses are from Greece. Many other countries make similar brined white cheeses, especially in the Mediterranean region. As Food Fun Travel explains, a few examples are Romanian telmea, Bulgarian sirene cheese, and bulghari in Lebanon. Sirene is creamier with a hint of lemon taste and it can be made from a combination of cow, goat, and sheep milk. Of course, there are also feta-like cheeses made around the world, although many of them are made solely with cow’s milk or with a mix of different animal milk (via Food Fun Travel).
Aside from considering the country of origin when choosing a feta-style cheese, differences in flavor and texture are also relevant. According to Bon Appétit, sheep’s milk fetas (such as many from Greece) have the sharpest taste, while goat’s and cow’s milk fetas are milder. French feta is the creamiest, Bulgarian sirene is the saltiest, and classic Greek feta has that tangy, briny flavor we love so much.
Is feta cheese good for you?
All foods are healthy if they are eaten in moderation as part of a balanced diet. Because of the high-fat content in most cheeses, many people are used to thinking of it as unhealthy, but there are certainly benefits to consider. According to Healthline, feta cheese has a nutritional profile that is different compared to other cheeses, especially Parmesan or cheddar which are aged. For starters, feta is lower in fat and calories and it contains more calcium and B vitamins than soft white cheeses like ricotta, goat cheese, or mozzarella. Feta cheese also has good amounts of folate, iron, magnesium, and other vitamins including A and K. It also contains probiotics, which are great for gut health.
All of its nutritional goodness paired with its delicious, salty, creamy, and crumbly qualities make feta cheese perfect in a salad or melted over a sandwich. So if you’re trying to eat healthier, take solace in the fact that you can definitely crumble some feta onto your plate.
Substitutes for feta cheese
Feta cheese has a few unique factors including its country of origin, the lack of cow’s milk, and the salty, tangy flavor. Remember, feta cheese is only aged for a few months which keeps it fresh and bright. In comparison, Parmigiano Reggiano (another protected designation of origin product) must be aged for at least 12 months, according to Taste Bologna.
But what if you have no feta around and want to mimic its taste or texture? Good substitutes might be crumbly, creamy, or salty such as ricotta, goat cheese, and queso fresco. Halloumi is a great replacement for feta if you’re craving saltiness thanks to its sharp flavor. Just keep in mind that it doesn’t easily melt or crumble and is best used for recipes that require a firmer cheese.
How to cook with feta cheese
Now, what should you serve with such a delicious salty, tangy cheese? Greek food is certainly a great place to start since many recipes already call for feta. The Spruce Eats has a ton of ideas for cooking with feta, and it goes beyond spanakopita (although we 100% recommend the spinach and feta stuffed phyllo pastry). Try a classic Greek salad with tomatoes, cucumber, feta, and olives, or make a colorful chickpea salad. Since it is included in many Mediterranean and Middle Eastern dishes, it’s definitely worth stocking up on a few blocks if you enjoy these cuisines.
Since feta cheese melts, it works well stuffed in a chicken breast or mushroom, in a grilled cheese sandwich, or over roasted vegetables. Or, take it up a notch and try it on pizza or on a veggie burger. Meanwhile, if you get your food tips from TikTok, you’ll definitely be aware of the viral feta pasta trend. The easy recipe uses up an entire block of feta cheese and pantry staples, so you’ll definitely want to give it a try.
You can even make feta cheese at home
Even if you’re lacking Greek heritage, you can make feta cheese in the comfort of your very own home. If the Odyssey’s Cyclops could make it in a bag, you can make it in your kitchen! Sure, it won’t be up to the standards of the protected designation of origin feta you can buy imported from Greece, but it will taste all the better from being made with your own hands.
The New England Cheese Making Supply Co. has a great recipe for making cow’s milk feta, but you can easily substitute goat or sheep milk (or both). You’ll need a few supplies including rennet, cultures, and a cheese mold, as well as a decent amount of salt to make the essential brine. To simplify the process, you can even use yogurt for the culture. Much like yogurt, feta is a fermented food, which means it contains probiotics that are beneficial for gut health and the immune system (via Web MD). Feta cheese is good for you, it’s delicious, and you can even make it at home. What’s not to love?