It happened in a flash—in January this year, MacKenzie Smith, the blogger behind Grilled Cheese Social, posted a video to her TikTok of creamy feta pasta. Finnish blogger Jenni Hayrinen is credited with making the first internet waves with her uunifetapasta (Finnish for “oven-baked feta pasta”), and Smith’s video has racked up 3 million views, with the #bakedfetapasta hashtag amassing more than 50 million views and counting on TikTok. A whole block of briny, creamy feta melted into pasta…what’s not to love? Feta was the top trending cheese on the internet for the first stretch of 2021. Now this cheese is officially in the limelight.
But feta’s story is way older than social media. In fact, it’s one of the world’s most ancient cheeses. Around 8,000 years ago, not long after the beginning of the first domestication of animals, feta was born. It might have been a happy accident; as milk started to ferment while being transported in the stomach lining of a goat or sheep, the shepherds carrying it discovered a delicious surprise.
The first written reference to feta appears in “Homer’s Odyssey”, where the Cyclops prepares cheese in his cave from the milk of the “plump sheep that grazed in the meadow” outside. “The woven baskets were full of cheese, the folds were full of sheep and goats and all his pots, tubs and churns where he drew the milk, were full of whey,” Homer explained. The Cyclops may have been the world’s first (fictional) cheesemaker, and feta was his prized craft.
At its core, feta is a simple cheese. It’s bright white, soft and compact, and traditionally brined in salt water. The word “feta” means “slice” in modern day Greek. That term originated in the 17th century (before then, feta was just called “cheese” in Greece), and refers to the tradition of slicing up cheese and placing it in barrels, a practice that continues to this day.
Greek Salads Are Just the Start
Feta’s TikTok fame has helped drive home the fact that feta is a versatile, heavy-hitting ingredient in a wide array of recipes.
“I use feta when I’m looking to add a creamy, slightly salty texture and taste to a dish,” says Yasmin Fahr, recipe developer and author of the cookbook “Keeping It Simple”. “This can be adding it to a warm pasta salad so that some of it melts, giving it a rich, creamy taste or something simple like summer tomatoes on toast. I love the tang that it adds, but I think the fact that it’s tangy, salty and creamy are the reasons that I use it so often.”
Fahr’s recipes for New York Times Cooking include Sheet-Pan Baked Feta with Broccolini, Tomatoes and Lemon, and Braised Chicken with Tomatoes, Cumin and Feta. The latter is a sort of riff on the flavors of shakshuka, the famous Middle Eastern dish where eggs cup in a spicy tomato sauce with a bright burst of feta.
Beets and feta are a great combination—the earthy, sweet veggie and salty cheese make great foils for each other. Dress a beet, feta and spinach salad with a classic vinaigrette for a great side or light lunch.
Spanakopita, The Greek dish of crispy phyllo dough layered with a mixture of spinach, feta, and herbs makes a perfect brunch, lunch or appetizer. Feta is also great for topping pizza and flatbread stuffing chicken breasts or crumbling atop roasted veggies. “In dips, sandwiches, pastas, dressings, salads and so many other items, it’s such a useful cheese to always have on hand,” Fahr says.
When it comes to pairing beverages, high-acid, aromatic white wines like a Moschofilero from Mantinia, or a dry Riesling from Alsace, play off the feta’s rich, sharp bite. A refreshing, mellow pale ale is also a great choice.
Is Greek Feta the Best?
After 16 years of court battles with Germany and Denmark, which make their own feta, the EU granted PDO status to Greek feta in 2002. If you’re looking for Greek feta from Greece, seek the Real Greek Feta brand. Sourcing pure sheep milk (although regulations stipulate the recipe can include up to 30% goat’s milk) directly from the ancient regions of Thessaly and Macedonia, Greek artisans follow the original, millennia-old recipe—compressing fresh cheese curds and brining them for preservation and welcome saltiness, then carefully aging in wooden barrels for 60 days, resulting in a decadent texture and lovely citrus notes.
Like Champagne, Prosciutto di Parma and Parmigiano Reggiano, feta is a Protected Designation of Origin (PDO) product, protected by the European Union. In the United States, you can find feta made domestically as well as from Bulgaria and France, although only Greek PDO Feta sports the official PDO label.
Only about 2% of feta on the market is the PDO variety, which stipulates a whole host of requirements. For example, it must be made in Macedonia, Thrace, Epirus, Sterea Ellada, Thessaly, Peloponnesus and the islands of Lesvos, Limnos and Agios Efstratios with sheep’s milk or a mixture of sheep and up to 30% goat’s milk. The PDO seal means centuries of tradition are honored in the production, and the result is an incredible depth of flavor and truly delicious experience.
Classically made with sheep’s milk, you might also find goat’s or cow’s milk feta, or a mixture of milks. When it comes to choosing a variety, it depends on your palate, recipe and mood. Farr usually buys “Bulgarian feta in the brine; I love that it’s creamier than other types,” she maintains. Bulgarian feta usually packs the saltiest, richest punch. French feta tends to be softer and milder (perfect for whipping up into a dip). Sharp, briny Greek feta is somewhere in the middle, with a lemony zing to the finish.
Feta is available in crumbles, vacuum sealed and in brine. Cheese lovers swear by feta packed in brine (salt water), which intensifies flavor, elongates the cheese’s shelf life and improves its creamy texture. The brine can also be repurposed to thin out a feta dip or added to a marinade for chicken.
Innovations and Trends
This ancient cheese is primed for creative market innovations. Feta flavors are a fun, approachable trend. President sells feta—made in Wisconsin—flavored with Mediterranean herbs, tomato and basil and even cranberry.
Marinated feta is a wonderful treat—it can be spooned over crusty bread, pasta, or served as an appetizer. Meredith Dairy makes its jarred Australian Marinated Feta 50 miles west of Melbourne, which is wonderfully rich and luscious. The flavorful olive oil, peppercorn and herb marinade is as tasty as the cheese itself. Also look for feta dips and spreads picking up popular steam.
When it comes to packaging, brands are experimenting with colorful, catchy designs. Take Kakias, an Athens-based producer, which packages its feta in a bright blue, white and black plastic box, decorated with whimsical illustrations of the ingredients of the Greek salad. The design gives both a traditional and a contemporary feel to the product.
“I saw a lot of really interesting innovations in Greece, including feta with truffles, smoked feta and feta aged for up to 18 months, much longer than we typically see,” says Amy Sherman, editor in chief of the Cheese Professor. These are still making their way to the U.S., but we can certainly look out for them in years to come. Feta might date back to the start of civilization, but when it comes to its culinary possibilities, we’re just getting started. DB