So not too long ago, I decided I had to run down to a small imported foods market in Minneapolis to get some really good Feta cheese to make Bulgarian Cheese Pots. (By the way, those Bulgarian Cheese Pots are OUTSTANDING!) Yeah, who does that? Not me on a regular basis, but Bill’s Imported Foods is in such a cool area of town, it was fun just going there. I took advantage of the trip and bought several items, including extra Feta and several kinds of Feta! And of course, I wanted to know What to Know About Feta Cheese to make sure my bounty stayed up to snuff!
I want to maximize my Feta experience, and now, hopefully, your’s, too. With a product as widespread and ancient at Feta, you’d need to be an expert to cover everything, and then there would be arguments, so I’ll cover the basics. There are actually very specific rules put forth by the European Union as to what is or isn’t Feta but luckily Wikipedia has a pretty comprehensive list of “white brined cheeses”. Here in the US, we don’t pay as much attention to the rules and many white, brined cheese is referred to as Feta, whether it is or not.
What to Know About Feta Cheese:
Head spinning yet? Frankly, depending on where you live, you may or may not have actual “Feta” available. If you’re in a larger, metropolitan area and have access to ethnic markets, cheese shops, well-stocked delis or grocery stores (many are offering cheese areas) serving many different populations, you may have a lot of choices. In smaller towns, or if you have limited shopping time, you may be restricted to what the grocery store sells.
The most common Feta Cheeses:
- Greek Feta: Salty, tangy, sharp & lemony. Most Greek feta varieties have at least 70 percent of sheep’s milk, the rest, goat’s milk. The more goat milk in the cheese, the more crumbly. Feta that has been aged for two to three months can be milky and creamy, six months makes it a little more complex and aromatic, and up to twelve months produces a more intense and peppery flavor. Use in salads, savory pies, and pastries.
- French Feta: This particular variety is also made from sheep’s milk; traditionally from milk leftover from the production of Roquefort. It tends to be milder, softer and creamier than a Greek feta. This is a great Feta for whipped Feta to spread onto crusty bread or serve with vegetables.
- Bulgarian Feta: This sheep’s milk Feta is also called Sirene. It’s still on the soft side, creamy, and tangier than French feta because it is made with yogurt cultures and tends to have a fermented tart taste. Typically used in stuffed into peppers or simply snacked on with some red pepper and olive oil.
- Israeli Feta: Made from either sheep or goat’s milk, producing a firmer texture. There has been a positive reaction from feta lovers on this new type, with a fuller flavor that’s less salty and still creamy.
- Basic Grocery Store Feta: In the US, Feta can be packaged under various brands. Most are styled after Greek Feta; read the labels. You may find it by the block in vacuum-packed plastic tubs, with or without brine, wrapped in heavy plastic without brine.
- Basic Grocery Store Feta Crumbles: Avoid the crumbles if possible; they are not only inferior, dry and sold without brine and can’t be brined, but more expensive than you may think. More on that under shopping for Feta. below.
What to Know About Feta Cheese, Shopping:
What may be more important than the type of feta you buy is how it is packaged. Feta is cured in brine and often sold in brine, a mixture of salt and water. The brine intensifies the flavor, keeps the Feta soft and fresh and safe, and improves its lifespan. If you buy Feta at a cheese shop or deli, you can ask that they include the brine when it is packaged. If you buy Feta without the brine, you’ll want to make your own, below.
Feta cheese can be a big-ticket item so you want to get the most bang for your buck when you buy it. Stick with block Feta, and don’t be afraid to explore ethnic markets, cheese shops or the grocery deli if available as opposed to just picking up the vacuum-sealed Feta. You may be surprised at the prices.
I recently bought Feta at Bill’s Imported foods, Bulgarian for $4.99 a pound, French for $6.99 a pound. I also picked up a grocery store vacuum packed Feta, 8 ounces for $4.99, and next to it were two brands of Feta crumbles, in a package that was the same dimension as the blocks. Both were $3.99 a package and one was four ounces, the other was three. The grocery store prices were pretty consistent at several stores in my area. Here’s the math, adjusting to find the per-pound cost.
- Bulgarian Feta from market: $4.99 a pound.
- French Feta from market: $5.99 a pound.
- Grocery Store Block, Vacuum-sealed: $5.99 for 8 ounces, or $9.98 a pound.
- Grocery Store Crumbles, Vacuum-sealed: $3.99 for 4 ounces, or $15.96 a pound.
- Grocery Store Crumbles, Vacuum-sealed: $3.99 for 3 ounces, or $21.28 a pound.
Because of the rise in popularity of the crumbled Feta, some of the stores I checked no longer carried the Feta in the block. I can understand how easy it would be to look at Feta in a block in the same sized package as Feta crumbles, notice the crumbles are a dollar less (and ready to use) and pick them up instead. They seem cheaper but they are half the weight or less of the block Feta; they’re just fluffier. Since they aren’t stored in brine, and since they can’t really be brined at home, they’ll be dry and have a very short shelf life.
Lecture Alert: Every time more money is paid for an inferior product, you send a vote to the grocery and the producer that you are down with that! And because enough people are showing the market supports the price, and the grocer’s and producers know they are making more money off us with the crumbles, some stores are now selling crumbles exclusively.
What to Know About Feta Cheese, Storing:
One thing almost all salty white cheeses like Feta have in common is that they are usually cured, kept and sold in a brine, a solution of salt, and water. Feta deteriorates quickly when not stored in brine, and although you can’t see it happening that deterioration is starting in as little as a day. If you buy from a store that keeps the Feta in a brine, you may ask the clerk to ladle brine over it.
If you must buy it without brine, and you don’t plan to use it within a day or two, make fresh brine for it, which is a concept, although not new, that I first discovered at Olive & Tomato. If you’ve picked up grocery store Feta, it may or may not be sold in a brine, and if it is, the container may not reseal well. Transfer the Feta to a Ziploc bag and place that in another container that seals well or just use a container with a tight seal, and make your own brine, below. You’ll want to make sure the Feta is completely submerged with very little “headroom” or space at the top.
“The worst thing you can do is add plain water,” says Ron Cardoos, who markets Mt. Vikos cheeses in the United States. The water will suck the salt out of the cheese, leaving it bland and subject to rapid decline.
As long as the Feta is in a proper brine, with the correct percentage of salt to water, the Feta should stay fresh and keep its lovely texture for four to six weeks and up to a year if handled properly (not contaminated, for instance by being on a dirty counter and then returned to the brine, handled with dirty hands, cut with knives that aren’t clean, or left out at room temperature) and stored at the right temperature. That’s between 45 to 55 degrees, so refrigerator temperature will be just fine.
Making Brine for Feta Cheese:
It was actually a Cook’s Illustrated article that led me to question the standard brine for the storage of Feta. They brined Feta in a solution of 2 teaspoons of salt per cup of water and checked it at 10 days. In their expert opinion, this brine solution had the effect of slightly hardening the Feta. They tested several methods but didn’t give the proper ratio of salt to the water, at least in their “free” article.
Consulting several different cheesemakers, I found the recommended percentage for the storage brine (which is different from the curing brine) is 6 to 8 percent salt by weight. For a six percent solution, using tables salt, no iodine, please, the amount of salt per cup of water is 2.39 teaspoons or about 2 1/2 teaspoons per cup of water. If using kosher salt, the amount of salt is pretty close to 2 3/4 teaspoons per cup. That is even saltier than the brine Cook’s Illustrated tested.
Yeah, who’s feelin’ salty, now? So this is an educated guess, take it or leave it. If you just want to keep your Feta around for a few days, you could probably go with a lighter brine. Or if you don’t care if your Feta seems to be a little more solid or wish to keep it longer, use the full 6 percent. If your Feta is too salty, rinse it before using or put it in a container and cover it with milk for up to 24 hours. Don’t store your Feta in milk for any longer.
To make your brine, simply dissolve the salt in water and once cool (refrigerator temperature) pour over the cheese. How much you need depends on the volume of Feta and the size of your container. Make sure there is little to no headspace or air at the top and the Feta is completely submerged. For a standard 8 ounce block in a Ziploc, as shown, you’ll need about 1 3/4 cup to 2 cups of brine. I find it easiest to dissolve the salt in one cup of hot water, then add cold water – it won’t take so long to cool down in the fridge.
Other Methods for Storing Feta Cheese:
- To further extend the shelf life of Feta, drain it, wrap tightly in plastic freezer wrap or place in a heavy-duty freezer bag ad freeze, for best quality, no longer than six months. It will stay safe indefinitely. Frozen feta cheese may lose some of its texture and flavor; the thawed cheese will be best suited to cooked dishes.
- Store in olive oil by completely submerging the feta in the olive oil, tightly sealing and refrigerated. It is best not to do so with herbs or garlic as that can increase the risk of botulism. The cheese itself is another question, and although most likely just fine, I’m not aware of a study that has been done by a reliable source. This method seemed to get a thumbs up by Cooperative Extension, Ask an Expert.
- Some store Feta in milk, and as mentioned above, milk is fine to draw out some of the salt, but do not store long term; the expert opinions seems to be no longer than 24 hours.
What About That Brine?:
The brine almost always turns a little milky when storing Feta. This is usually due to the bit of calcium that leeches from the cheese. If the cheese becomes “melty” or slimy, it could be that the ph balance is off. If you catch it in time, before your Feta is too “melty,” just rinse it and place in olive oil, instead.
There are uses for that salty, feta brine that can elevate all kinds of items. Splash some in a salad or in a salad dressing. Use it to marinade, maybe chicken or tofu. Marinade vegetables with it before grilling or roasting or drizzle it on after. Use it wherever a little salty kick will benefit. There’s a kind of “famous” recipe by Melissa Clark (of the New York Times) that brines chicken in Feta, see Feta Brined Roast Chicken on Food52.
What to Know About Feta Cheese, Nutrition And Health Benefits:
The probiotics in Feta can help promote the immune system and gut health by protecting the intestinal tract from disease-causing bacteria like E. coli and Salmonella, and increase the production of compounds that inhibit the inflammatory response, thus providing anti-inflammatory benefits. Studies have shown that the bacteria and other yeast strains found in this cheese can grow at a low pH, surviving extreme conditions in your gut, even with bile acid present. Feta, like other dairy products, is also a source of calcium and phosphorus which have been shown to contribute to better bone health.
Feta, as a sheep dairy product, contains up to 1.9% Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), a fatty acid found in animal products, which corresponds to 0.8% of its fat content. CLA has been shown to help improve body composition, decreasing fat mass and increasing lean body mass. CLA may also help prevent diabetes and has shown anti-cancer effects. Healthline.
According to Wikipedia, Feta cheese contains numerous probiotics: Lactobacillus casei, L. paracasei, L. Plantarum, L. rhamnosus, L. coryneformis, Lactobacillus curvatus, L. Brevis, L. buchneri, Enterococcus faecalis, E. durans, Pediococcus pentosaceus, P. acidilactici, Leuconostoc lactis, Ln. paramesebteroides and Ln dextranicum. Feta also has significant amounts of vitamins A, B12, and K, folic acid, pantothenic acid, iron, and magnesium., all while being lower in fat and calories than aged cheeses like Parmigiano-Reggiano or Cheddar.
What to Know About Feta Cheese, The Downside:
Feta is high in sodium. If you’re sensitive to salt, one simple way to reduce the salt content of this cheese is to rinse the cheese with water before eating it or soak in milk for up to 24 hours before using.
Feta, since it is an unripened cheese, may be higher in lactose than “ripened” cheese. Those allergic or intolerant to lactose should avoid eating unripened cheeses, including feta.
Cheeses made with unpasteurized milk have a higher risk of carrying the bacteria Listeria monocytogenes than cheeses made with pasteurized milk; If your Feta is made with unpasteurized milk (in the US, most aren’t) it carries a higher risk, especially to pregnant women, older adults and those with compromised immune systems, according to the CDC. Any soft cheeses like Feta due to it’s higher moisture content also may contain slightly more risk than hard cheeses.
Soft Cheese & Food Safety:
Feta, like all soft cheese, can turn rather quickly and unlike hard cheese that can sometimes be trimmed off and the good part used, soft cheese will develop spores or bacteria throughout the cheese. According to the CDC, soft cheese can harbor several different nasties, so it’s not only important to store correctly for quality, but for safety, too. Any soft cheese, if left out for more than two hours should be discarded.
If your Feta develops an off odor or color, it should be discarded in a safe manner so that no people or animals are able to come into contact with it. Do not put it down your garbage disposal. Bag in plastic, then wrap in several layers of newspaper and place in a tightly closed trash bin.
Make sure to carefully wash anything that it has come into contact with (don’t just drop the container it was in and/or the brine into a sinkful of dishes, for instance, or wipe off the counter and then reuse that dishrag) and wash your hands well, for at least 20 seconds (sing the ABC song) with warm soapy water.
I hope you’ve enjoyed “What to Know About Feta Cheese.” I know I’ve only scratched the surface, but additional resources are listed below! In the meantime, if What To Know About Feta has you hungry for more, click on the tag, “Feta” at the bottom of the page or use the search bar in the upper right to see all recipes that reference Feta Cheese.
Sources & More Reading:
- Feta, General and Nutritional Information: Wikipedia, Feta
- Nutritional Benefits: Healthline
- Bon Appetit, Feta Guide: Types of Feta You Should Be Eating
- History, Types & Storage: SFGate Focus on Feta
- A Quick Guide To Feta: Olive Tomato
- Buying & Cooking GuideTo Feta: The Spruce
I’ll be sharing What to Know About Feta Cheese at Fiesta Friday #285 this week.