Greeks eat feta cheese with nearly everything—crumbled on all types of salads, stuffed in vegetables and pies, folded into casseroles, blended into dips, baked with oregano and olive oil, and most commonly, just sliced into slabs to be nibbled on throughout the meal. As a kid, I loved to mash up feta and butter into a creamy, tangy spread for my breakfast toast. My granddad taught me to pair feta with fruit like watermelon, honeydew melon, and grapes. And I haven’t even mentioned the classics like Greek salad or ripe, juicy tomatoes tossed with cubes of feta, sea salt, and olive oil.
The point isn’t really that we Greeks are feta fiends (though we are; thanks in large part to all the feta we eat, Greeks have the highest per capita cheese consumption in Europe, leaving the French in the dust). It’s that feta is much more versatile than you think. Its salty tanginess makes it a great flavoring for many dishes, much like Parmesan cheese, plus it adds interesting texture.
If you’re not as enthusiastic as I am about this delicious, underestimated cheese, perhaps it’s because you’ve not been properly introduced to it. Once you know which feta to buy and which to avoid (hint: pre-crumbled supermarket feta isn’t the way to go), how to store it to modify saltiness and texture, and what foods complement its briny flavor, you’ll know what all the fuss is about. Consider the following recipes for baked feta, herb salad with feta and beets, fusilli with feta and lemon-caper pesto, and feta-stuffed braised chicken as just a starting point for coming up with your own feta-inspired dishes.
Get to know the many sides of feta: creamy, crumbly, mild, or sharply tangy
Feta is a humble cheese. Compared to handcrafted, long-aged wheels of parmigiano reggiano or delicate wine-washed French cheeses, feta is a simple cheese to make. It’s ready to eat after just six to eight weeks of quiet hibernation. Its flavor is accessible, and it complements many foods; if feta were a wine, it would be a Sauvignon Blanc.
And yet, you might be surprised to find out that feta styles can vary immensely. All fetas are rindless, white cheeses aged in brine, but some are soft and moist, others hard and dry. Some are crumbly, others more creamy. Some are salty, others more tangy. I tend to go for feta that’s soft and mild, not too crumbly. I like to get pinched by the salty tanginess but left with a mellow, creamy aftertaste. But you might like another style; try different types to find out.
The differences among fetas are a result of how the cheese was made, whether it contains sheep’s, goat’s, or cow’s milk, and how long it was cured. Traditional Greek feta usually consists entirely of sheep’s milk, although it may contain up to 30% goat’s milk. But feta is made in dozens of other countries too, including Bulgaria, Russia, France, Spain, Israel, and the United States. (New European Union rules will eventually restrict the name “feta” to Greek cheese; all non-Greek feta-style cheeses will be called “brined white cheese.” This rule won’t apply in the U.S.)
Scout out a better feta
Not too long ago, you’d find decent feta only in Middle Eastern or Russian markets. Now, thanks in part to the artisan cheese movement in the U.S., good feta is available in cheese shops, specialty or international food stores, and occasionally even in supermarkets. Farmers’ markets can be good sources, too; some small U.S. cheesemakers are making excellent feta from sheep’s and goat’s milk. And some of the better quality imported fetas are finding their way here as well.
What makes a good feta? Whether it’s crumbly, hard, and dry, or soft, moist, and creamy, good feta should taste and smell fresh. Compared to most cheeses, feta has a pronounced but pleasing acidic tang. If it smells or tastes overly sour, or if it has developed a peppery aftertaste, it’s probably over the hill. Barrel-aged Greek feta is the most acclaimed and coveted—it develops a complex flavor by aging in wood—but some tinned fetas can be excellent, too.
Cow’s milk fetas are the most common in the U.S., but to me, they fall flat in flavor. I often find them chalky and sour, sometimes with a slightly metallic aftertaste. I much prefer the richer, more intense flavor of sheep’s and goat’s milk fetas. Unfortunately, feta isn’t always labeled with the type of milk, so you’re left to ask the salesperson (who may not know) or to do some tasting until you find one you really like.
Buy feta in whole blocks, bricks, or wedges. This makes sense for the same reasons that you buy Parmesan in big chunks: it stays fresher for longer, it doesn’t dry out, and its flavor packs more punch. Also, it gives you more options. Sometimes you want to slice a thick slab of feta and other times you need large crumbles. Finally, feta sold in whole pieces is often—though not always—a sign of a better-quality feta.
Avoid pre-crumbled and flavored fetas. These are the worst examples of feta cheese in the U.S. Pre-crumbled feta can hide textural problems in the cheese, while flavored feta can disguise any off flavors. As a rule, I’d opt for store-wrapped pieces of feta over vacuum-packed containers. But my first choice is always large blocks of feta held in brine.
Modify feta’s texture by storing it in brine, water, or milk
Storing feta in brine not only preserves freshness, it also regulates the creaminess and saltiness. Taste the feta when you get it home (or, if possible, at the shop before you buy). If it’s saltier than you would like, store it in plain water. The salt will leach out of the cheese within a day or-two. If the salt level is fine for your taste, store the cheese in the same brine in which it came, if there is any. If there is none, make your own brine (add a few hefty pinches of salt to a pint or more of water).
You can make a crumbly feta more creamy by cutting the brine with milk—about 1 or 2 tablespoons per pint of brine will do. It takes a few days for this little trick to take effect. You might need to try a few batches before you get the amounts of salt and milk just right, but the cheese won’t suffer in the meantime.
Cover the feta with the brine and store in a covered plastic container in the refrigerator. A large chunk of fresh and properly stored feta should last up to three weeks.
Beyond Greek salad: more ways to cook with feta
Here are a few ideas to expand your feta cheese recipe repertoire.
• Feta baked in foil. Put a 3/4-inch-thick slab of feta on a sheet of foil. Sprinkle on dried red chile flakes and dried oregano; drizzle with olive oil. Wrap the feta in the foil, and bake at 350°F until it’s softened but not mushy, about 10 minutes. Unwrap the foil at the table and serve the warm feta with bread, lemon wedges, and perhaps more oil.
• Scrambled eggs with tomatoes, basil, and feta, called strapatsada in Greece. Cook a chopped onion until softened, add sliced tomatoes and salt, and cook until the tomatoes break down and the juices evaporate. Beat 5 or 6 eggs, season with salt and pepper, and scramble the eggs in the pan with the saucy tomatoes. Just before the eggs are done, stir in chopped feta and chopped fresh basil.
• Feta and olive oil dip. This spread, called chtipiti (pronounced SHTI-pity), is part of the constellation of Greek meze (the equivalent of Spanish tapas). You can spread it on bread and top with roasted red peppers or serve as a dip for raw vegetables. Blend 1/2 pound roughly crumbled feta with 1/4 cup milk until grainy. With the blender running, slowly pour in 1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil and blend to a thick glossy cream. Stir in minced fresh jalapeño to taste. To mellow the tang of the dip or get a creamier texture, mix in 2 or 3 tablespoons cream cheese.
• Cretan bread salad. Start with the basic framework for a classic Greek salad: coarsely chopped ripe, juicy tomatoes, cucumbers, and olives, plus a few morsels of crumbled feta. Then add capers, dried oregano, sliced bell peppers, fresh dill, chopped scallions, and chopped onions—be sure to salt the tomatoes, cucumbers, and onions so they relinquish their delicious juices—and toss with extra-virgin olive oil. In Crete, they moisten whole-wheat rusk (a thick slice of dried-out bread) with a little water or tomato pulp and pile the salad on top so the rusk soaks up the juices and softens. If you can’t find rusk, use cubes of stale bread and toss with the salad.
• Onion and feta tart. Fill a shallow baked tart shell with caramelized sliced onions (cooked until they’re jammy), crumbled feta, and ribbons of sautéed leeks piled on top. Serve at room temperature or bake at 350°F for about 10 minutes.
• Cornbread with feta. Make your favorite cornbread recipe and fold small cubes of feta into the batter just before baking.