If you’re from the West Coast, you likely know about mizithra cheese from The Old Spaghetti Factory’s browned butter and mizithra cheese pasta (which is really good). What you may not know is that this cheese has a history that goes back thousands of years. That should tell you how easy it is to make if ancient Greeks could do so without modern kitchens!
Mizithra is what’s known as a “whey cheese”, a cheese that is made by using the whey from previous cheese or yogurt making to provide the acidity to curdle milk. The milk is traditionally a combination of sheep and goat, but cow’s milk works just as well. Anthotyros is another whey cheese and is almost identical to mizithra. If you want to frustrate yourself, by all means, try looking up information that will clearly describe how the two cheeses are different. Have fun with that! When I asked my own mom if they were all that different, she just said “not really”.
(Update: As I have learned more about the history of these cheeses and cheese making in general, I have come to understand that a “whey cheese” was made only from the whey and not by adding any additional milk. Heating the whey and then acidifying it helped to extract out the residual proteins left behind from making cheese using rennet (this is called “sweet whey”). However, the amount of material produced is incredibly low, and so modern versions of mizithra and anthotyros are more often made by the process shown in my “cheater’s version”. The process below is still another traditional process that produces great results.)
Regardless of the name, mizithra can be eaten or used fresh as a sweet cheese, similar to ricotta or cream cheese, or it can be salted, and even dried to a hard cheese that can be grated and tastes amazing on pasta dishes. When eaten as a soft cheese, it’s perfect for spreading on crackers or bread and tastes equally wonderful with a drizzle of honey or olive oil (my mom’s favorite way!). The fact that it can be made in a short period of time makes it even better!
Some quick notes before you begin:
The authentic way to make this cheese requires whey drained off from other cheese or yogurt. So what to do if you haven’t made cheese? You have two (update: three!) easy options: you can make Greek yogurt and save the whey after you strain your yogurt to thicken it, or you can buy plain, regular (not Greek) yogurt and strain it (see my Greek yogurt recipe for instructions on how to do this). Option three is to make my “cheater’s” version!
If you are using yogurt as your source of whey, it is important to use one that does not have any gelatin, pectin, or any other types of additives, just milk and bacterial cultures. To get enough whey to make a decent amount of cheese you will need to start with at least 8 cups of unstrained yogurt.
You will also find that you will get a better curd when making the cheese if you allow your strained whey to become more sour, which is easy, just keep it in a covered container in the fridge for up to a week.
If you are starting with “sweet whey” left from regular cheese making, it will be particularly important to allow your whey time to sour in order to have enough acidity to curdle the proteins in the milk you are adding to it. You could also use your sweet whey to make this treat here!
Homemade Traditional Mizithra Cheese Recipe
DirectionsFor every 1 cup of whey, you will need 2 1/3 cups of milk (any combination of sheep, goat, or cow to your taste), and 1/4 tsp. salt (optional). Measure out the milk into a pot and heat on the stove to near boiling, stirring regularly to prevent scorching (Update: I have had the best results with curd formation if the milk reaches 180 F before adding the whey). Add the whey, turn the stove to low, and continue to cook while stirring regularly. You will continue to do this until the milk is curdled and the liquid portion is no longer white, but more clear and yellow in color. Once it reaches this point, remove it from the heat. (Another update: if your milk forms small curds and the whey still seems milky instead of clear and yellow, your whey may not have been acidic enough. No worries! Add vinegar, 1/2 tsp. at a time, stirring for at least a minute before adding more, until the whey is that clear yellow color.)
Line a strainer or colander with a clean tea towel or muslin cloth, and set it over a large bowl. Carefully pour the liquid from the pot into the strainer to filter out the whey. Use a spatula to scrape the milk solids from the sides of the cloth to keep the liquid moving through. Once all the liquid has drained through, if you want your cheese salted, which it will need to be if you want to dry it, you will add it now and gently mix it into the cheese curds. The whey you strain out can be used to make more cheese, or used as a great soil-acidifier for acid loving plants like blueberries, hydrangeas, gardenias, etc, so don’t just dump it! Even other plants will appreciate the nutrient boost. Just be sure to let it cool first. (You could also use it to make this lovely cheese-like treat here!)
At this point, gather up the corners of the cloth and tie them together. I like to stick a long-handled spoon through the knot and suspend the cheese in something tall like a juice pitcher to allow the cheese to dry a little more. How much you want to let it dry is up to you. Overnight is enough to get it to cream cheese thickness. It will take several days to get it to a point where it is dry enough to grate it like parmesan. FINALLY!! If you want to dry your mizithra, I have the simple and tested instructions ready to go. Just click the link here!
If you want it that dry, remove it from the cloth after 24 hours and place it into a fresh, dry cloth, rub salt all around the cheese ball, and re-hang it someplace cool (but not the refrigerator) where it will not be disturbed. Update: I’m working on a more specific set of instructions for drying mizithra to ensure consistent success… something I’m sure you’d like! It will take a while, but I’ll keep you all posted when it’s ready! In the meantime, you’ll have really tasty soft mizithra! Enjoy!