What's Fabulous: Burrata
Once a week Zabar's fabled cheese department receives a precious delivery. Having cleared customs after arriving airfreight the night before from Italy, a refrigerated shipment of small white pouches is unpacked, each piece tied with a green leaf and sealed in a plastic bag along with a little puddle of cloudy whey. Once in the store the bags are transferred into an ice-filled plastic display bin that gets pride of place on the top of the counter where the cheesemongers give you tastes and prepare your order. The bin carries a warning: "Do Not Touch. Ask for Help."
This is burrata, an acutely fresh and highly perishable cheese that is as much about its construction as its taste: each burrata is a little sack of a thin mozzarella filled with shreds of even softer mozzarella curds and cream. The surface of the burrata slightly weeps from its precious contents, and once cut, will ooze its creamy ricotta-on-steroids filling.
Originating about a century ago in Puglia, a southern region of Italy, burrata is a cousin to fresh mozzarella. But while both cheeses are white, soft, simple, milky, and mild, the burrata is also very slightly sour. It can be made from the milk of either cows or water buffalos, but don't confuse this with buffalo mozzarella -- that's conventional mozzarella made with buffalo milk.
Like many foods we eat, burrata was invented out of a practical need to avoid waste, in this case, by cheese makers who didn't want to discard any curds left over from making mozzarella. But in solving the leftovers problem they invented something that is even more special than the original.
Burrata means buttered, but there's no butter here. When the burratas are made, the mozzarella is formed into sheets and then shaped into little pouches, each filled with scraps of leftover mozzarella curds and topped off with cream.
The filled burrata pouches are then tied with a topknot and in its most traditional form, finished with a green leaf from the asphodel plant, a herbaceous plant -- a weed, in fact -- that is common in southern Europe. This practice came from common sense: by the time the asphodel leaf fades in color, it means the burrata is no longer fresh and will have dried out. Today most of the burratas imported from Italy have a decorative-only plastic green leaf so you're best to just eat the burrata within a day of purchasing it since its shelf life is about one week.
The finished burrata is left to cool and then packed into plastic bags or containers along with a little watery whey to keep it moist, similar to what you see done when you buy fresh mozzarella at a good cheesemonger or Italian grocers.
While it is increasingly made in the U.S., especially on the west coast where the added distance from Italy makes it tough to import while still fresh, most burrata sold in the U.S. is imported from Italy, especially from Puglia. U.S. food regulations prohibit imports of cheeses made with raw milk so the burrata we buy is made with pasteurized milk. Some producers are also making burrata with flavorings, such as bits of porcini mushrooms, but remember that the cheese flavor is so delicate that any added tastes risk overwhelming it.
Because burrata is a fragile product that is costly to import, it is rare to find it in anything but a good cheese store. Still, it is a good idea to ask where it was made, when it was delivered, and when it must be eaten by. In New York I have purchased burrata not only from Zabar's but also West Side Market, Fairway and Eataly; it's also available at Whole Foods, Saxelby Cheesemongers, and Stinky Bklyn. Other good cheese shops will carry it only during the summer when the demand is higher, so you should always ask. And a final shopping tip: it can sell out quickly. The manager at Zabar's called it a "weekend item" and usually sells out by Monday.
An individual burrata will usually weigh between a half and 3/4-pound and cost about $15 a pound, or about twice the price of an equivalent boule of fresh mozzarella. That means you'll pay something around $8 to $15 each.
How To Serve Burrata
This is a food that is best eaten simply and when it is as fresh as possible. Because its flavor is almost identical to whole milk mozzarella -- milky, subtle, a tiny bit salty, and luscious -- it's best paired with flavors that you also love with mozzarella -- the acid of a good tomato, the bite of fresh basil, and the nutty sweetness of prosciutto.
Remove the burrata from its asphodel-tied pouch, shake off any excess liquid, and place it in a shallow serving bowl. That's because when you cut into its tender skin the creamy curds will spill out, exposing an outer surface of mozzarella and a loose, liquid-y interior.
Burrata can be added to a salad; or used to finish a home-baked fig and arugula pizza; serve it with room temperature olive oil-slicked haricots verts that have been cooked to tenderness so to not compete with the burrata's pillowy softness; with room temperature roasted asparagus spears or chunks of sweet seasonal beets; with slices of juicy pears; on top of a bowl of steaming polenta; or just add several grinds of black pepper, a drizzle of the best olive oil you can find -- and a spoon.
But my favorite way to serve and eat burrata is to remove it from the refrigerator just a few minutes before serving so that it's still cool but the chill is off; this will enhance its flavor and also let the creamy interior get fully soft. I place the burrata in a serving bowl and cut it into small chunks -- do this at the table immediately before it's eaten. I separately pass a bowl with chunks of in-season tomatoes dressed with a pinch of good salt, a light drizzle of olive oil (this is a time to use your good stuff), and a few basil leaves torn into small pieces. Alongside I have a platter of prosciutto, preferably San Danielle, and fresh bread. A ciabatta would be ideal as it's soft inside with a beautiful crisp crust, making it perfect to swipe up the remaining dribbles of the creamy curds. I let everyone assemble their own plate, encouraging a scoop of the creamy burrata by making sure there's a spoon nearby.
Consider this an over-indulgent and deconstructed Caprese Salad, something to be savored for the weekend when you first find local tomatoes and want to give them a worthy complement.