Given the popularity of a certain baked feta pasta recipe on TikTok and other social media channels, the cheese is getting a lot of attention these days.
I must admit that before now, my only image of feta was the dry, crumbly stuff I've purchased from supermarkets.
But after doing some research and chatting with Tia Keenan, a cheesemonger and author of The Art of the Cheese Plate, my eyes have opened to the fact that not all fetas are created equal.
"People think of feta as one cheese, but feta is a multitude of cheeses," Keenan says. "Cheddar is not one thing. It's a style, and so is feta. Think of it as a category of cheese."
What is feta, and how is it made?
Feta as we know it has been around since the 12th century. It gets its name from the Italian word "fetta", meaning slice. It falls into the category of fresh cheeses and is simply prepared. Traditionally, milk is heated, mixed with probiotic cultures and rennet to coagulate, drained of its whey, sprinkled with salt, brined and then aged in barrels, tins or baskets for at least two months.
"Any attempt to trace feta's origins leads a researcher straight into quicksand," Janet Fletcher wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle. "In the Balkans, every country makes this chalk-white cheese and every country thinks it invented it."
According to Keenan: "Feta is like hummus; It's a regional food that transcends borders, even though the Greeks would claim that's not true."
Greek mythology holds that Aristaeus, son of Apollo, was sent to teach humans the art of cheesemaking. Homer's Odyssey, written in the 8th century BC, tells of one of the Cyclopes, Polyphemus, who made cheese that is said to be the predecessor to feta.
Feta and Greece seemingly go hand-in-hand, but similar cheeses made traditionally elsewhere in the region were also labelled "feta", and Greece didn't like that. "It's a huge export for Greece, and it's in their interest to have it be this one identity of Greek feta," Keenan says.
To maintain a stronghold on the cheese, Greece successfully petitioned the European Union to have its identity protected. Per the BBC, the cheese "must adhere to certain requirements in order to be called feta, including a minimum 70 per cent sheep's milk that must come from local breeds of sheep and goats traditionally raised on local pastures and from designated parts of Greece."
So within the EU, those made from other countries or with different types of milk are labelled "feta-style" cheeses.
Greek salad topped with a slab of Greek feta (recipe here). Photo: Marina Oliphant
Types of feta
If your only idea of feta is the dry crumbles you sprinkle on salad, that is just one form. It can also be soft and creamy, in a range of flavours and potencies. The main differences in styles come down to milk type and country of origin. Sheep, goat and/or cow's milk are all used, and major producers include Greece, France, Bulgaria and Israel.
Sheep's milk: Feta made from the traditional, highest-fat option "tends to be very creamy and really rich," Keenan says. It can also be somewhat gamey, which might be too overpowering for some. "But for me, the essence and soul of feta is that animally, lanolin-esque, wet, intense, creamy cheese" that comes from sheep's milk.
Goat's milk: Keenan finds it "a little too austere for feta". However, goat milk used in combination with sheep's milk can produce a milder flavour for anyone who finds 100 per cent sheep's milk too gamey. Additionally, a higher proportion of goat milk makes for a more crumbly cheese.
Cow's milk: "What most people probably eat for feta is industrially produced cow's milk feta," Keenan says. "It's on the drier side, and I think that's more the result of needing to be sold in supermarkets." Per Cooking Light, "It can also become slightly sour, but tends to have a milder flavour than other feta varieties."
Feta's flavour intensifies with age. But with Greek feta in particular, terroir – particularly what the animals have eaten in the designated regions – also comes into play. Cook's Illustrated says the flavour that diet imparts really "makes Greek fetas stand out". Greek producers say more complex flavours come from an additional step in the cheesemaking process, where the cheese is salted and let sit for a day or two, before being placed in brine.
"I feel like the French have really cornered the goat's milk feta market," Keenan says, but they also make cheese from sheep's milk, sometimes using any excess from Roquefort production. "French feta is more austere and a little bit drier" compared to Greek feta. Bulgarian feta is made from sheep's milk and lies on the other end of the creaminess spectrum. "The Israelis also make some pretty great feta in that creamier style," Keenan says.
Buying and cooking with feta
Bulgarian feta is Keenan's go-to style. Beyond that, it's all about milk type and country of origin. "My advice is to figure out what you're cooking and then decide how dry and how salty you want to go, and usually dry and salty have a parallel relationship," Keenan says.
For example, you might not want a very creamy feta to make spanakopita, as the moisture would hinder the filo from getting crispy.
But "for that TikTok pasta, you want the creamiest feta you can find, which unfortunately I'm sure is not what people are using."
And different milk types also behave differently when heated, as "goat's milk doesn't melt the same way that cow's milk and sheep's milk does".
When shopping, remember that feta packed in brine lasts longer, won't dry out and even tastes better. So whether perusing the cheese aisle (the feta at my local supermarket is with the other fancy meats and cheeses you would put on a charcuterie board) or looking at the huge blocks in the deli case, stay away from dry prepackaged cheeses and make sure your cheesemonger fills your container with brine after cutting off a portion. (And don't throw out that brine! You can use it a number of ways, such as to marinate chicken or cook beans.)
"People need to understand that feta is a condiment in a lot of places," she says. "Think of feta, in some ways, as the way Italians use Parmigiano-Reggiano. It's not something that you have to eat a whole block of. You use it as an accent to finish dishes."
With all of the different ways the cheese can be made, there's a feta to suit just about everyone's tastes. But if you still are not a fan and want a substitution, ricotta has a similar flavour but a different texture, and a fresh goat's cheese has a comparable brightness and creaminess. While I'm always a firm believer that it's your kitchen and you are free to do what you want, I urge you to give feta another chance if you have yet to explore all that it can offer.
"Everyone's making a similar recipe, but they're using different milks, they're using different brine recipes, using different amounts of aging and different amounts of brining time. Even though it's all the quote-unquote same cheese, it's all really different," Keenan says. "I'm proud of feta because it has resisted homogenisation, not of the milk, but of the category."
The Washington Post