We’re told not to play with our food, but I would be instantly wary of anyone who bites sticks of string cheese instead of tearing off their creamy tendrils. (Yeah I said it. Creamy tendrils.) Most of the joy of eating string cheese comes from that action, the peeling and slow savoring. So what is it about string cheese that creates those strings?
“String cheese is mozzarella, just with a little extra step to make sure you get those nice thin strings, or hairs as my kids call them. That’s lost on me though, because I just grab the cheese stick and eat it,” says Chad Galer, a dairy scientist with National Dairy Council, and a person of whom I am now suspicious because of his non-cheese-stringing methods. But he does seem to know his cheese.
Galer tells me stretching mozzarella creates a certain protein structure. How the cheese is pulled and shaped creates different protein alignments, which is why a brick of mozzarella rips apart differently from a mozzarella ball. When cheesemakers’ goal is to create string cheese, they heat the cheese to a higher temperature than they would for other forms of mozzarella, which causes the proteins to link tightly. Then, the sticks are brined in salt water, which helps create a smooth texture.
“You warm it to around 170 degrees and pull, stretch, and kneed it back together to drive that protein alignment to cause those thin hairs,” Galer says. “You stretch it into a rope, then cut those sticks.”
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There are non-mozzarella sticks that look like string cheese, but those tend not to string as well, and are therefor usually labelled “cheese sticks.” The Food And Drug Administration considers string cheese a “fanciful” name, meaning it doesn’t have a legal definition and must also include the type of cheese: part-skim mozzarella, reduced-fat mozzarella, etc. Oh, and those Kraft Twists that say they’re both mozzarella and cheddar? Even the yellow cheddar half is mostly mozzarella, with a little cheddar and coloring blended in. Because of how cheddar is made, it doesn’t peel the way string cheese does, necessitating the blending with mozzarella.
Baker Cheese of St. Cloud, Wisconsin, claims it invented string cheese in the early 1970s when one of the Baker family members realized chopping mozzarella into shorter sticks, rather than forming it into a ball or rope, would produce what was considered revolutionary at the time: individual, snack-sized cheese. They sold well in bars. Today, Baker Cheese still touts its “48 hours from farm to finish” freshness, which is actually another defining characteristic of the category overall.
Fresher cheese pulls apart better than aged cheese, as the matrix binding together fat, protein, and moisture breaks down over time. The U.S. Dairy Export Council says “after three to four weeks cheese may be ‘soupy,’ and the strands are short as well as weak.” That’s why Galer says milk destined for string cheese might get to a factory 48-72 hours after it’s produced, then becomes cheese within a day.
“It’s probably within a week or two at your grocery store, maybe less in some cases,” he says.
He adds that string cheese past its best-by date wouldn’t necessarily be unsafe, but it might not peel apart as well as it should—which, unless you ask the weirdos, is the whole point.