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Pasta filata is an Italian term for “spun paste,” or drawn-curd cheese. It is called spun paste because the strands of cheese are stretched and spun into a mound of product. After the curds have been successfully drawn and spun, the end result is generally a malleable white cheese.
The major initial step of producing pasta filata, or cheese in general, is to create the curds. Curds are produced when milk is congealed with a form of acidic substance. The milk thickens after being introduced to the rennet — a natural complex of enzymes — or other substance, such as vinegar or even a citrus juice. Once thickened with the rennet or other acidic substance, the milk turns into a gooey, snarled lump, otherwise known as curd. This product typically sits for an hour before being cut into small curds. Curds may also be produced naturally by allowing milk to curdle on its own by being left out to sour.
If the curds have been produced in a large container, the liquid substance leftover is called whey. Essentially the by-product of cheese, whey is also called milk plasma. Depending on the cheese maker, the curds are typically soaked in this whey or hot water for a couple of hours once they have been able to relax for a handful of hours.
After the whey-soaking process, the curds are pulled from the hot bath. They are then kneaded and mixed repeatedly until soft. When done successfully, the kneading and manipulation of the curds produces a rubbery texture. This texture allows the curds to be pulled into strings and chopped into separate lumps of cheese, creating pasta filata.
Many pasta filata cheeses are made using this kind of process. Mozzarella or buffalo milk mozzarella, for example, is essentially ready to eat after the aforementioned process. Other cheeses, however, require additional steps before being ready. Caciocavallo, provolone, and scarmorza are cheese varieties that are often aged or smoked afterwards.
Cheese that has been formed using the pasta filata technique is typically on the sweeter side. Some of these cheeses, such as mozzarella and provolone, prove to be bland to some people. A cheesemonger would beg to differ, though. These white cheeses often find the delicate balance between sweet and bitter. The aged and smoked cheeses, of course, produce a different, tangier effect. It's important to keep in mind, however, that fresh cheese often tastes better or more pungent than the processed varieties.