One of my favorite local grocery stores in the world is Stamoolis Brothers in Pittsburgh. In business since 1909, the Mediterranean market specializes in Greek products that I just can’t find anywhere else: amazing olive oil from family-run vineyards, imported spices from Greek islands, and obscure packaged goods like Greek alphabet pasta, mastic gum, and oregano chips. Behind the meat and cheese counter, though, is the real reason I go to Stamoolis: a mind-blowing selection of diverse, delicious, and well-made feta cheeses.
Feta is a brined cheese—hence why the good stuff often comes packed in liquid—and it’s mostly made from sheep’s milk, although often you’ll often see a sheep and goat milk blend. Until the owners at Stamoolis let me conduct a cheese tasting, I was not aware of the range that feta possesses.
According to the European Commission, authentic Greek feta must be made in Greece and it must be made from sheep’s milk, or, if it’s blended with goat’s milk, the goat’s milk has to be capped at 30% of the overall product. A blend is always delicious because the goat milk adds creamy texture, while sheep’s milk lends a tangy, bitey flavor that I associate with Pecorino Romano (I often choose Pecorino over Parmesan for that reason).
Here in America, though, a lot of grocery store feta is criminally made from cow’s milk, which has less flavor. Though feta can and often does operate on a spectrum, feta enthusiasts will rightfully point out that cow’s milk is inauthentic. The next time you’re thinking about buying feta, I would implore you to pass on the dry Athenos feta crumbles at the grocery store. Head to a local mediterranean market instead and get some feta packed in brine. Here’s an overview of the many varieties you’ll encounter.
French feta is so good it’s cheating. I say that because it’s just so damn creamy and indulgent, almost like a Brie or a Roquefort. Apparently, a lot of authentic French feta incorporates the same Lacaune sheep’s milk used to make Roquefort. If you’ve ever had good Roquefort, you know just how luscious and buttery it can be. French feta, in addition to being obnoxiously creamy, is also less salty and tangy, so that fatty, buttery, melt-in-your-mouth texture is considerably amplified. Why go French? Well, aside from taste, it’s much easier to whip. So, if you’re making dips and spreads that call for feta, give it a go. Perhaps a feta cheese mousse?
On Christmas Eve, a toothless man waiting in line at Stamoolis told me to try Serbian feta, which brings me to a personal philosophy I have: Always follow the suggestions of a man missing a few teeth. Serbian feta is the most mild of the bunch, packing neither a distinct bite or creaminess. It’s also quite dry. I much prefer the pronounced creaminess of French or Greek feta. However, Serbian cuisine does feature a few stuffed pastries that include feta, such as kiflice and burek, so if you’re thinking about baking feta into some pastry dough, Serbian style is a good way to go—that way, the mildness and texture won’t be too distracting.
I hate puns, but this is sincerely the GOAT of feta cheeses. I regularly pick up a wet brick of Bulgarian feta from the Armenian grocers here in Los Angeles because it’s a full-frontal assault of everything that makes feta great: a briny, creamy, mouth-smackingly tangy experience. It’s almost a bit lemony, and not in that artificial, citric-acid-tinged way. It’s just fresh, man. To me, Bulgarian is just as creamy as French feta, but still packs that delicious, quintessential punch. It’s also usually made from a blend of sheep and goat milk, hence the stupid-ass GOAT pun I made earlier. Bulgarian feta is a fine table cheese due to its strong flavor, and it will also immediately improve any salad or pita. My suggestion: Try making banista, a rich and flaky Bulgarian cheese pie.
At Stamoolis, some of the feta cheese arrives in these big, old-timey wooden barrels that look like something Donkey Kong throws from his perch. Barrel aged feta has a uniquely oaky taste to it, in addition to also being a tad bit sweeter. A taste of this stuff is kind of like enjoying a good bourbon. If I were ranking these based on flavor alone, barrel aged feta would be number two directly after Bulgarian.
Across the board, Israeli feta’s most notable attribute is that it’s less salty. The flavor is mellow, but this is still creamier than a Serbian feta. Because of its subtle flavor and awesome texture, I think it makes a great snacking and salad cheese (salads require texture). Throw it on a cheese board and watch it fly off the table. There is definitely some mass appeal to the mildness of Israeli feta; it’s why Trader Joe’s now sells it. TJ’s just loves to get its grubby, culture-appropriating little hands on stuff like this.
After reading about all the other fetas on this list, do you really want to try the store-bought American stuff again? Athenos lists “part skim milk” in its ingredients, along with cheese cultures, salt, and enzymes. Presidente also lists pasteurized milk. Bottom line: Store-bought American feta uses cow’s milk, and the cheeses taste worse for it. Sure, they emulate that salty, tangy flavor of feta, but the product is usually devoid of that briny, creamy bite you get from a well-made feta cheese, and brands like Athenos are just far too dry. American feta is the ghost of feta cheese, not the real thing.
We’ve bastardized feta, distilled it down to something that it is just not, as we Americans so often do. It’ll do in a pinch, but you should treat yourself to the good stuff. Everything at Stamoolis was reasonably priced, so it’s not like you’re breaking the bank.