One of my all-time favorite dishes in the summer is a bright caprese salad. Made with seasonal ingredients at the peak of their freshness, caprese offers comfort, presentation, and a zip of homegrown flair. Using heirloom tomatoes, fresh basil, a slight drizzle of olive oil and balsamic vinegar, and the most important of all ingredients — homemade mozzarella — this winner of a salad is sure to impress even the most staunch salad critic.
Those looking for a quick salad or fresh lunch can make this in a snap with store-bought mozzarella, but the beauty of this dish is in the process. For those willing to undertake a bit of cheese-making, a deeper, richer flavor awaits. Utilizing only three ingredients and a little bit of attention to detail, this version of the stretchy, creamy cheese we all love as kids is definitely worth the effort.
• 6-quart non-reactive stock pot
• Sturdy thermometer (temperature is a key component in this process)
• Stainless steel colander
• Slotted spoon
• Large glass mixing bowl
• 1 gallon whole milk (non ultra-pasteurized)
• 1 ½ tsp citric acid powder (a rubberizing agent that makes the cheese stretchy, available at most organic food stores)
• ¼ tsp or ½ tablet rennet (it acts as a coagulant; a vegetarian version is available at River City Food Co-op)
• Cold chlorine-free water (most bottled waters are chlorine-free)
Begin by dissolving the citric acid in ¼ cup water. While it is sitting aside, begin to slowly and steadily warm the milk, constantly watching the temperature. Add the mixture after the powder has completely dissolved and continue heating. Once the milk reaches roughly 88-90 degrees, remove it from the heat. Mix rennet in 1 cup of water and add the rennet mixture to the milk. Combine thoroughly, cover, and let stand for five minutes. At this point, you should have what looks like a thick white custard floating at the top of your liquid (the curd). Take a sharp knife and cut through the curd, separating it into small squares. This will make it much easier to further extract the whey.
Return the pot to the heat, slowly increasing the temperature to 105 degrees. Once you’ve reached that temperature, immediately remove the pot from the heat again and continue to stir for five minutes. This will separate the majority of the curds from the whey. Transfer the curds to a colander with a slotted spoon. Once the curds have drained, the final heating process begins. Place the curds into a glass bowl, microwave for one minute, and then drain the excess whey using the colander. Repeat this process, kneading the curds gently after each repetition until the internal temperature has reached 135 degrees for optimal elasticity. Some people incorporate salt at this point, but I prefer a slightly sweeter cheese. Alternate stretching and folding the cheese. It will begin to take on a slight sheen. Once it is shiny, you can mold and shape it into usable sizes. For this salad, I formed two balls about three inches in diameter, which is perfect for cutting half-inch slices.
Once you’ve tried this, you’ll appreciate the effort needed. The flavor is absolutely stellar; I highly doubt you’ll go back to store-bought mozzarella soon.