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What Is Feta?
Feta is a soft, brined, white cheese traditionally made from sheep’s milk, but commonly made from a mixture of sheep’s milk, goat’s milk, or cow’s milk. Traditional feta should have the following characteristics:
- White color
- Soft, crumbly, slightly grainy texture
- Salty, tangy flavor
Feta cheese is a protected designation of origin product, which means that in the European Union, feta cheese must be made in a traditional way in specific areas in Greece in order to be considered true feta. However, many other areas make feta-style cheese, each with their own slight variations—for instance, French feta is usually milder, United States feta is more crumbly, and Bulgarian feta isn’t usually as salty.
Feta cheese has a fat content lower than many aged cheeses like parmesan or cheddar and more vitamin B and calcium than soft cheese like cottage cheese. As a brined cheese, feta has a much higher sodium content than most other dairy products.
What Is the History of Feta?
Feta cheese is from Greece, and mentions of Greek cheese made from sheep milk date back to the eight century BC, in Homer’s famous epic poem, The Odyssey. The name feta didn’t come about until the seventeenth century—feta is the Italian word for “slice,” most likely referring to the practice of slicing blocks of feta cheese to fit it into barrels.
Now, feta cheese is produced widely in Greece, Italy, France, the United States, and much of the Eastern Mediterranean.
How to Make Feta Cheese
To make traditional Greek feta cheese, cheese makers follow these steps:
- Warm whole, unpasteurized sheep’s milk (and sometimes goat’s milk) and add rennet, a coagulant that helps the cheese set. Allow to sit until there is a clear separation between the thick curds and the clear, runny whey.
- Drain the whey from the cheese curds.
- Dry-salt the cheese. For this, add salt and allow the mixture to sit for several days (usually in wood barrels or metal containers).
- Age the cheese in brine (a solution of salt and water) for several weeks at room temperature, then an additional two months in a refrigerator.
The Greek feta is then shipped to grocery stores in the original container or in sealed containers of brine.
There are many variations for non-traditional feta cheese (feta that is not PDO certified), including feta cheese recipes that use cow milk in addition to or instead of sheep milk, that use pasteurized milk, or that allow the feta to age for only a few weeks instead of several months.
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Feta is a popular cheese in all kinds of different dishes:
- Greek pastries like spanakopita and tiropita. Spanakopita and tiropita (Greek for “spinach pie” and “cheese pie”) are two savory Greek pastries that incorporate feta cheese and other ingredients in between layers of flaky phyllo. They’re salty, crispy, and great for breakfast or as snacks.
- Salads. Feta cheese is very common crumbled over all kinds of green salads, like spinach salad with radishes or broccoli salad. It is a key ingredient in Greek salad as well, a vegetable salad made from sliced tomatoes, cucumbers, onions, and olives and served alongside a slice of feta cheese.
- Roasted vegetable sides. Feta melts quickly in hot dishes, so it’s perfect as a quick final topping to roasted vegetables, like roasted beets with feta or oven-baked green beans with almonds and feta.
- Feta and olive oil. Feta cheese is a great appetizer, often complemented with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkling of oregano or red pepper flakes. It can be eaten on its own or with slices of toasted bread.
- Pizzas and flatbreads. Feta cheese is easy to use as a substitute for mozzarella or as a crumbled topping over any pizza or flatbread, and it’s especially common on flatbreads that incorporate other Greek ingredients like olives and onions.
- Grilled feta. Grilling slices of feta cheese (either on a grill or in the oven) is a great way to bring out its tangy flavor. Grilled feta is often made herbed or peppered and served alongside bread or crackers.
What Is the Difference Between Feta and Goat Cheese?
Feta cheese and goat cheese (also known as chevre) are often confused for one another, but in fact they are separate and distinct types of cheese with several key differences:
- Ingredients. While both cheeses can include goat milk as a key ingredient, traditional feta cheese is made predominantly from sheep’s milk, with a maximum of 30 percent goat milk; goat cheese is made entirely from goat milk.
- Texture. Feta cheese is an aged cheese, meaning it is matured for at least several weeks, which gives it a crumbly texture. The most common goat cheese is fresh cheese, meaning it doesn’t go through an aging process and is therefore not crumbly, but has a creamy texture and is very spreadable.
- Saltiness. Feta cheese has salt added to the cheese and is also brined, meaning it is aged in a salt bath until it’s very salty. Goat cheese isn’t brined, and instead just has salt added to the mixture. As a result, feta cheese is considerably saltier than goat cheese.
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