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'Feta' Bulgarian Style
This months recipe is based on an age old process from Bulgaria in Eastern Europe. This is the land where the original magic of yogurt was discovered along with one of the dominant bacteria found in most all yogurt. A culture named for this region, and it is called 'Bulgaricus'.

This months recipe focuses on a cheese traditionally made in Bulgaria that has evolved in a similar manner to the Greek Feta. This cheese could be called 'Bulgarian' Feta but since July of 2002, the food laws of the European Union will only allow the 'Feta' name to be used for cheese made in Greece.


... And this brings us to the subject of cheese Politics ...

For many years Feta has been produced around the world as Greeks emigrated and took their favorite foods and recipes with them. It naturally followed that they would begin producing a cheese like Feta wherever they landed. This included countries such as the US, France, Denmark, Germany, etc. and for the longest time they made and sold a cheese called 'Feta'.
Well, Greece found this to be too much competition for a cheese that they felt was their own and filed with the European Union for "Protected Status" and hence a very long court battle began in 1994 between those countries that still wanted to sell their cheese as 'Feta'.

This style of cheese was not unique to Greece because variations had been made for thousands of years in other regions such as Bulgaria, Turkey, etc. However in July 2002 the EU courts ruled in favor of Greece and gave them their "Protected Status" and thus excluding other producers in the European Union from using the name 'Feta'.

Bulgarian Feta simply does not exist. Bulgarians call their Bulgarian-style Feta 'Sirene', which means simply 'a cheese', it is still correct, in English, to call it 'Bulgarian Feta' even though it is a different subtype of Feta than the Greek one. The cheese has several different variations, depending on the milk used. Originally it was made with sheeps milk, but today much of it is made from cows milk.

You should take note that none of these Bulgarian packages of this style cheese pictured here contain the words 'Feta'. They simply say 'Bulgarian White Cheese' but not much at all has changed in this age old process. Note also that the packages above can be either sheep or cows milk.


A Bit of History

This cheese has its history hidden in the mist of time. Homer wrote about a similar cheese in the Odyssey as he describes the cheese being made by Cyclops from ewes milk. Since then similar cheese process has spread to the North and East of Greece and finally to western Europe and the North American continent.
The name 'Feta' appears to be of Italian origin (Fetta) and simply means slice, probably referring to the way the cheese mass was sliced and place in barrels to mature. The use of this name appears to be somewhat recent , only being used since the 17th century.

The cheese was traditionally made by the farmers in the mountains, primarily with ewes milk but also a portion of goats milk was added due to the tendency to have mixed herds in the rough terrain. The process has always been a rather simple one of using fresh milk, coagulating with rennet, draining the curds, and preserving the cheese with a combo of heavy salt and a light brine for aging. Before refrigeration this was the only way to keep cheese in warm climates.

Today this cheese is primarily made in large cheese houses with the milk being brought down to the valley from the high pastures. Occasionally however, it can still be found being made in those mountain pastures from a mix of sheep and goat milk.

Today the cheese is also made from cows milk as well as the traditional ewe/goat milk combination but since July 2002 only the traditional Greek cheese can be actually marketed as 'Feta' produced only in specified regions of Greece.

Variations in Style

Essentially the white brined style of cheese can be described as a simple white cheese heavily salted and stored in a light brine for maturation.
However, since it has migrated over a period of 2000 years or more, it has evolved into its various forms in different parts of the world. It has moved north from Greece into Bulgaria and other eastern European regions as well as east through Turkey, Iraq, and into Iran where it is called Lightvan cheese.
Here I will compare 2 of the better known styles:

  • The classic Greek Feta Cheese which can only be called this if made in Greece in specified areas defined by the EU.
    This cheese is normally of a very firm structure in which high acid has developed before storing the cheese in a light brine. The cheese must be made from sheep milk with a maximum of 30% goat milk optionally added. The cheese tends to develop a strong flavor (piquant) from natural lipase additions and becomes very brittle and crumbly on aging.
  • Bulgarian 'White Brined Cheese' or 'Sirene' as it is called in Bulgaria, tends to not develop as much acid during its production and hence leaves a more elastic texture. This also tends to make the cheese more smooth and creamy since it also holds more moisture due to a much less aggressive draining than the Greek cheese.
    This cheese tends not to crumble like the Greek style but needs to be cut into cubes or slices. When ripened for a few weeks it becomes quite spreadable, almost like a young Camembert.

As mentioned earlier the cheeses can also be made entirely of cows milk and the name associated with this is 'Telemes' (I have no idea where this comes from).
The cows milk tends to be less white than the ewe/goat milk combo and the flavor not as strong as the traditional cheese and when following the Bulgarian style guidelines below, it produces a wonderful creamy cheese. In most of western Europe and North America the large scale production is from cows milk. Cows milk will be my focus for this cheese making session, mainly because I like the milder creamy flavor and most of my cheese loving fans feel the same. Besides, the Jersey milk I have access to does such a wonderful job with this cheese.


A Recipe for Bulgarian White Brined Cheese

The recipe below will be for a white brined cheese made from cows milk "in the style of" what is produced in Bulgaria. Bulgarian style Feta if you will .

Before you Begin:

You will need:

Everything needs to be clean and sanitized.


Acidifying and heating the milk:

Begin by heating the milk to 86-88F (30-31C). Best to do this by placing the milk in a pot or sink of very warm water. If you do this in a pot on the stove make sure you heat the milk slowly and stir it well as it heats

Once the milk is at the proper temperature the culture can be added. 1 packet of Ricki's buttermilk culture for 2 gallons. For a more traditional cheese however, the 1/4 tsp MA4002 (large pack) would be better because this will offer both the buttermilk mesophilics plus the thermophilic culture.

To prevent the powder from caking and sinking in clumps sprinkle the powder over the surface of the milk and then allow about 2 minutes for the powder to re-hydrate before stirring it in.

Next, cover the pot and while keeping it at the above temperature allow it to sit quietly for 30 minutes to allow the bacteria to begin working. This is a shorter time than the process for Greek Feta because we are looking for a little less acid when the curds are molded later. More time = More Acid. This will show later as a difference in texture in the ripened cheese.


Coagulation with rennet:

Then add about 1/4 tsp or 1.25 ml of single strength liquid rennet.

The milk now needs to sit quiet for 60 minutes while the culture works and the rennet coagulates the curd . This is longer than the Greek Feta and functionally will result in more moisture and a creamier cheese.
The thermal mass of this milk should keep it warm during this period. It is OK if the temp drops a few degrees during this time.

During this time sanitize prepare your colander or draining tray and draining cloth (butter muslin).


Cutting curds and releasing the whey:

Once a firm curd has formed the cutting begins as a very minimal release of whey before transferring to the molds.

The cut will be a series of vertical cuts made about 2-3 inches apart and again at right angles. Leaving a checkerboard pattern as shown in the photos. Then allow the curd to sit quietly for about 10-15 minutes while a small amount of whey is released and rises to the surface.

There will be no stirring or cooking of the curds. This will preserve the moisture and allow for a slow steady acid production with the final acid at molding much less than in the Greek Feta.


Separating the curds and whey:

The curds can now be transferred by using the ladle and making about 1/2-3/4 inch cuts across the previous cuts . The larger these pieces the moister the final cheese.

Yes, you can customize this to suit your own preference but try to stay close to these guidelines for the first batch).


The whey should be allowed to drain well as you do this and should be quite sweet and suitable for ricotta if you use it within a few hours (bacteria is still working and eventually will produce enough acid to make good ricotta unlikely).

The following is actually the predraining of the curds and not the final form so do not worry about shape here.

Once all of the curds have been transferred for draining the cloth should be folded over the curd mass and a weight of about 4 lbs (1/2 gallon of warm water works well for this) placed on top to encourage whey to run off.

The whey should be running off as a steady light stream for about the first hour as in the photo below.

Allow this to drain for 1-1.5 hrs, then open the cloth , cut or break the curds up into 2-3" pieces and draw the cloth together forming a knotting with one of the cloth ends as shown below. This is very similar to what has been done for hundreds of years and still is done today as seen in the photo below.

Allow this to rest for another 1-1.5 hours, then repeat the breaking or cutting and retie the curd pack. Make sure the cloth is brought up snug before retieing. Then flip the curd over onto its knot for another 1-2 hrs depending on final moisture. Weight the curd mass the same way as before.

Forming the cheese:

At about 4-5.5 hours the curds should be ready to be broken again and placed in the draining baskets as seen below. The time will depend on the milk you are using and the level of moisture you want in your final cheese. Longer draining under the light weight will create a drier cheese.

You can now transfer the pieces to the basket mold. Use a firm hand pressure to consolidate the curds as you go but do not break them too much. They will eventually consolidate under a little weight in the forms as they continue producing acid and releasing more whey

This needs to be kept warm (70-80F) to make for happy cultures as they continue to convert lactose to lactic acid, release more whey, and cause the curds to consolidate into a firm cheese. About 1.5-2 lbs of weight will help consolidation or if making a larger batches stacking the cheese on one another is sufficient.

At about 8-10 hours from the start of cheese making the weight can be removed and allowed to cool slowly overnight as the final acid is produced. The next morning the whey from the cheese should taste somewhat sharp or acidic or if you have a pH meter the cheese would read 4.8-4.9. A true Greek Feta would be 4.6-4.8 at this point.

The Cheese is now ready to be cut into smaller blocks for aging.

The last image in the group above shows a similar cutting at a commercial producer in Bulgaria.


Salting:

Now ready for salting and maturation. The final yield from 1 gallon of milk will be about 1.25-1.5 lbs of cheese.
I prefer to dry salt this cheese over 2-3 days using 5% by weight of cheese to salt. 1.25lbs= 20 oz. -- 5% of that is 1oz. of salt.
Note: that 5% salt will eventually be about 3-3.5% in the finished cheese because it will pull more moisture from the cheese and run off as brine.(the weight shown on scale in photo was for a larger batch than 1 gal)
I then measure this out, layout the cut pieces of curd on a draining pan and sprinkle about 1/4-1/3 of the salt evenly over all surfaces. Over the next 2 days, apply the rest turning the cheese to a new surface each time.

The salting should take place at about 52-54F (same as brining) and about 70-75% humidity.

Once the salting is complete, the cheese needs to rest for another 4 days while the salt is absorbed and the initial maturing begins. This should be done in same room as dry salting.
The changes that take place to the cheese during this time will help the cheese remain firm during the light brine aging phase.

Storage and maturation:

Finally prepare a storage salt brine of 6-8% (6-8 oz. of salt in 3 quarts of water will fill a 1 gallon jar to hold this batch), place Feta into a large container with lid and fill with the brine. Make sure the container has minimal head-space to avoid mold development. The Cheese can be aged in this brine for just a few weeks or up to a year or more at 45-55F. Younger cheese will be milder in flavor.

This tends to be a high salt cheese and if the salt is too high for your taste simply soak for several hours (up to a day) in milk before using.

Add sufficient brine to cover the cheese, and ripen at 48-50F for up to 30 days. Subsequently store at 46-42F until consumed.

Commercially they are packed in tins, filled with brine and sealed for maturation as in the photo on the right.

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The Cheese Queen is in Food and Wine and Barbara Kingsolver's
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Thanks for joining our cheese making family, keep those stories & photos coming. We love to hear from you!

In Peace,
Ricki, the cheese queen

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