Pizza night in our house is full-on DIY. Homemade pizza dough and sauce from summer’s canned tomatoes, sure; that’s de rigeur. But homemade mozzarella? Oh, yes. Quite simply, it’s a revelation.

Mozzarella is entry-level cheesemaking: satisfying, quick, inexpensive and fun. Stretching the cheese is like pulling taffy, but the cheese is quicker to come together.

In fact, the process is so quick that if it’s taking too long, you might have overdone it and the cheese might be tough. But it will still melt like a dream and taste fresh and milky, and the next time, you’ll do even better.

And that pizza? Just tear pieces of cheese and scatter them across its surface. While you’re doing that, some of those pieces might end up in your mouth. It happens.

After melting, the mozzarella bubbles and browns into the chewy topping and long, tantalizing strings associated with the best pizzeria pies. At home. In about 40 minutes.

First things first: The better the milk, the better the cheese. It’s possible to make mozzarella from whole, 2 percent, 1 percent or nonfat milk, but not from UHT (ultra-high-temperature) processed milk, so check the label; curds simply will not form if you use UHT milk. I prefer the flavor of whole milk and always use pasteurized, non-homogenized milk from a local dairy.

You’ll need two items that might not be in your arsenal: citric acid, a coagulant, and rennet, an enzyme that firms curd.

Both are available in some grocery stores, in the canning department of hardware stores, at international grocers and online. Neither is expensive, and citric acid will come in handy when canning tomatoes this summer. Rennet is available in tablet or liquid form, either animal-based or vegetarian (made from artichokes). Always keep rennet in the refrigerator; it will stay fresh and active for a year.

From there, the process is straightforward: You dilute both citric acid and rennet before gently stirring them into the milk. Then you leave it alone, and the transformation happens. In just a few minutes, the milk achieves a custardy texture, jiggly but firm. Slip in a knife and press the curds aside, then use a long knife to cut a 1-inch checkerboard pattern all the way through the curds, from the top to the bottom and side to side.

Gently heated, these creamy curds are ready to be spooned out of the whey and drained. Now for the fun part: You take small clumps and dip them into the reheated whey before stretching. The cheese is ready when it’s shiny and bouncy and buoyant. Taste it. So tender.

A gallon of milk makes five or six baseball-size portions of mozzarella. That’s more than you need for pizza, so use some of the curds to fashion a few other forms. Homemade string cheese for the kids’ lunch, herb-marinated bocconcini (small balls) for yours. Layer a flat rectangle of the shiny white cheese with prosciutto and roll it into a log, then slice into spirals as a pre-dinner snack (what the French and Italians call “apero”).

Mozzarella is only one of the stretched cheeses – provolone is another – and they are all differentiated by their tender quality when fresh and young, and their firm sliceability when aged or chilled. When refrigerated, your mozzarella will firm up as the fats tighten, and the cheese will lose some of its bounce. Try to eat most of it right away, especially when still warm: It’s so much creamier and tender than store-bought, but it won’t hold long – at most, only a day or two.

Or buy yourself more time by making stracciatella (the cheese, not the egg-drop soup or chocolate-studded gelato of the same name). I’ve been making mozzarella for years, but chef Matt Adler at Osteria Morini in Washington, D.C., taught me this new form, and I haven’t looked back. Once the curds are stretched and silky-shiny, you pull them into long strands, spoon those into cream, chop them up with scissors and stir until they absorb the rich cream.

The result spoons like ricotta or cottage cheese (although Adler gave me the side-eye when I made the comparison to the latter, traditionally a diet food) but has those delicious strings that stretch from bowl to mouth. Unlike mozzarella, delicious stracciatella holds for four days in the refrigerator. These days, I turn half of my mozzarella into stracciatella for the fastest, most satisfying lunch imaginable.

The next time dinner plans include pizza, pick up a gallon of milk. Pizza, lunch, apero: So many delicious options, with not much effort.

Homemade Mozzarella

Makes 1 pound

This takes about 40 minutes to make. For this recipe, use only non-chlorinated water; see the note, below. You’ll need an instant-read thermometer and food-safe gloves.

If you need to de-chlorinate the water, you’ll need to leave it out at room temperature at least overnight and up to 24 hours.

Look for rennet at Latin grocery stores, at stores that carry beermaking supplies or online. Citric acid is available in the canning section of grocery and hardware stores.

11/2 teaspoons citric acid (see headnote)

11/4 cups cool, chlorine-free water

1/4 teaspoon (or 1/4 tablet) rennet (see headnote)

1 gallon whole milk

Kosher salt

2 or 3 thin slices prosciutto (see variations; optional)

Dissolve the citric acid in 1 cup of the chlorine-free water. In a separate container, dissolve the rennet in the remaining 1/4 cup of chlorine-free water.

Pour the milk into a large, deep stainless-steel pot. Stir in the dissolved citric acid-water mixture. Heat to 90 degrees over medium heat, stirring occasionally.

Remove the pot from heat, and use a spoon or skimmer to stir in the dissolved rennet-water mixture for about 30 seconds, gently moving the milk from the bottom of the pot to the top without breaking the surface of the liquid.

Cover the pot and let it sit for 10 minutes, during which time a somewhat solid mass of curds will form.

Use a long stainless-steel palette knife (with a rounded, flat blade) or similar knife to slice into the curd mass, pressing it to one side. The whey will be clear and yellowish, and the cut should be clean. If the whey is cloudy or the curd is crumbly, cover the pot for another 10 minutes.

Cut the curds into 1-inch segments, slicing from top to bottom then side to side in a checkboard pattern. Let the curds sit for 5 minutes, so they can express whey.

Heat the curds to 105 degrees while stirring lazily, about 5 minutes, then spoon into a metal, ceramic or glass bowl. Let them rest for 10 minutes.

(At this point, the curds may be used to make homemade stracciatella; see recipe at washingtonpost.com/recipes.)

Press against the curd mass; pour any resulting whey back into the pot. Place the pot of whey over medium heat; bring to 180 degrees.

The cheese will not stretch until it registers 135 degrees on an instant-read thermometer. Heat the curds in the whey as follows: Pull a baseball-size hunk of the curds from the bowl. Use a skimmer to dip them into the hot whey for 30 seconds.

Don food-safe gloves, because you’ll be handling very hot cheese. Remove the curds from the skimmer and pull the curds, fold, pull and fold. They will not quite stretch, and they might tear.

Place the curds back into the whey for 30 seconds, remove and pull the curds again. They should be shiny and hold together like taffy. Work quickly to pull, fold and pull, repeating only one or two times until the mozzarella feels supple, then form a circle with thumb and forefinger and press the mass through to form a sphere of cheese. Twist to detach, place on a plate and continue to form the remaining curds in the same way. Salt the cheese to your liking.

VARIATIONS: Shape the curds into bocconcini (1-inch balls) or string cheese (4-inch rope); or pull them flat and layer with prosciutto, then roll into a log. Serve the last, sliced, as an appetizer.


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