It's a perverse testament to fried mozzarella's greatness that even in its shittiest incarnations, even when it's just battered and deep-fried sticks of rubbery Polly-O string cheese prepared and served at your local dire corporate chain eatery with all the care and enthusiasm of a wino tumbling down a flight of stairs, people still like it. It's stretchy and melty and fatty and salty, and you get to dip it in stuff, and that's always fun, and hey, it's better than the Extreme Southwest Chipotle Maplewood-Smoked Bacon Ranch Meat Poppers even on their best day, even on the day the despairing nihilist line-cook doesn't ash his cigarette onto them.
This is why every restaurant, every sad sagging basement bar or unspeakably atrocious amusement-park snack window, serves fried mozzarella. This is what TGI Fridays banks on prospective diners getting all spiral-eyed about when they hear the words " endless appetizers." That people like fried mozzarella more than they care about how fresh or good or lovingly made it is; that so long as it approximates melty cheese encrusted with crunchy breading, the people will come.
Consider, though, that this willingness to settle for fried mozzarella in virtually any form is a disservice—both to mozzarella itself, which in its fresher, simpler, non-rod-shaped formations, is one of the very best things humans have taught ourselves to make, and also to you, the eater, deprived of the glory and wonder of actual fresh mozzarella prepared by an actual person who doesn't actually bide the time at his miserable chain restaurant job by dropping actual kitchen vermin into the same deep fryer where he cooks your lousy fried cheese sticks.
We do this because fried mozzarella is never really all that bad, and because its shittier variants almost always come with cold beer and televised sports and other people to clean up after us. And, most importantly, we do it because making the stuff at home is a fucking pain in the ass.
Yes. It's true. Making fried mozzarella is kind of a hassle. Kind of a big, messy, annoying-as-hell hassle! A hassle that's all too easily traded for the infinitely crappier but readily available version down at your local beer closet. But not this time, dammit! This time, embrace the hassle. This time, wrangle and wrestle and defeat the hassle! This time, and maybe only this time, make your own damn fried mozzarella. It's gonna be so good.
No, really, we are doing this right now. Let's get started.
The first part of making fried mozzarella, of course, is to acquire fresh mozzarella. A one-pound ball of mozzarella, pretty much any which way you cut it (so long as you do not use a riding lawnmower to do so), will make enough fried mozzarella for three adults, with maybe a couple of pieces left over, depending on how you cut it; surely you can do whatever terrifying math goes into calculating how much you'll need for however many people you intend to serve.
Freshness is worth considering, and possibly spending extra for, here. You're not, say, burying this mozzarella in lasagna or spreading it across pizza—it'll be dressed up, sure, but only a little, so you want mozzarella that can carry the production, so to speak. If there's a local place that makes its own mozzarella, go for it; the next best thing is brand-name stuff with Italian flag colors on the packaging; if you so much as glance in the direction of anything with the word "Polly-O" on it, so help me I will write you the sternest fucking letter you ever saw.
Also! If you have options, and can get fresh mozzarella that comes wrapped tightly in plastic, that is better for your purposes* than mozzarella that comes floating in a tub of water. Nothing against tub-of-water mozzarella! It's just, as you might guess, a lot wetter than the plastic-wrapped stuff, and that moisture can make the eventual crispy breading on your fried mozzarella turn soggy and sad with awful quickness.
*If you can't get plastic-wrapped mozzarella, or your plastic-wrapped mozzarella choices are clearly inferior to the floating-in-water option, that's OK. Maybe later when you've hacked your mozzarella into pieces, but before you bread and cook those pieces, you can press them between some layers of paper towels to try to squeeze some of the moisture out.
The first actual cooking step doesn't involve mozzarella at all. Haul out a medium-sized saucepot or saucier pan and make a basic tomato sauce in it. Nothing fancy, here: A pinch of crushed red pepper heating up in a glug of olive oil; then half of a big Spanish onion, diced, and a big pinch of salt; then, when the onion sweats itself soft and translucent, a couple anchovy fillets; then, when those have dissolved away to nothing, two minced cloves of garlic; as soon as you can smell the garlic, dump in a can of whole tomatoes and a dried bay leaf. Smash the tomatoes with your wooden spoon or spatula or chainsaw, bring the liquid in this concoction to a low boil, then lower it to a gentle simmer and leave it the hell alone, except for maybe the occasional stir when you think of it or want an excuse to taste some tomato sauce.
You can let that stuff simmer away happily throughout the entire rest of the process, so long as the heat under it stays pretty low and you complete the entire rest of the process at some point prior to the heat death of the universe. In the meantime, cut your mozzarella into pieces. Decide for yourself what exact shapes you want to go for; sticks or slabs or, uh, shorter sticks, or cubes, or whatever. Fuggin' star shapes. Goldfish. Who gives a shit. It's your own damn food. You'll want to try to aim for shapes that will submerge fully in, oh, maybe an inch-and-a-half or two inches of hot oil, to ensure they cook evenly.
Now, grab two plates and a bowl, and prepare breading stations. In one plate, dump some all-purpose flour; beat three eggs in the bowl and park it directly next to that first plate; in the second plate, mix regular unseasoned breadcrumbs with a couple pinches of finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, some freshly cracked black pepper, and a nice big pinch of salt. Position this second plate on the other side of the bowl.
Got it? OK! Now you are ready to bre—psych, no you are not. First, take a bite of a piece of unbreaded mozzarella, and taste a pinch of your breadcrumb mixture. You see, the thing is, not all mozzarella is the same. Some of it is salted and some of it is not—and, among salted mozzarellas, some are very salty and others are less so. How does your mozzarella taste? Yes, yes, of course it tastes good, it's mozzarella you fool, mozzarella tastes good. Is it salty? Could your breading maybe use another small pinch of salt to make sure it's pulling its weight flavor-wise, or is the mozzarella salty enough to carry it? Adjust the seasoning in the breadcrumb mixture to your liking.
OK, so now it's time to start breading some friggin' mozzarella. So, yeah: Bread your mozzarella. You're gonna use the Wet Hand/Dry Hand method for doing this, so that neither of your hands gets both dry stuff and egg on it. With your strong hand, and only your strong hand, grab a piece of mozzarella and roll it in the flour on the first plate, until it's completely coated. Using that same hand (your Dry Hand), shake any excess flour off the mozzarella and lower it into the beaten egg bowl, taking care not to touch the liquid egg at all. Now, with your other hand (your Wet Hand) roll the mozzarella around in the egg to coat it, then lift it out of the egg and lower it onto the plate with the breadcrumbs, again taking care not to get any breadcrumbs on your Wet Hand. Now, with your Dry Hand, heap some breadcrumbs on top of the mozzarella, and kinda press it and roll it until it's completely coated. Grab it—still with your Dry Hand!—and move it to a sheet of aluminum foil or a big dry cutting board or cookie sheet or whatever.
Repeat this mind-melting tedium with all the other mozzarella pieces, pausing to wash and thoroughly dry your hands each of the half-dozen inevitable times when you forget the whole Wet Hand/Dry Hand thing. Boy, that sure was annoying as hell, wasn't it? Yes, it was. I am sorry. You're really going to feel super great about the next step, though. I can feel it.
Beginning with the first mozzarella pieces you breaded (since they've had the longest time to settle into their new clothing), give each and every goddamn breaded mozzarella piece at least one more run through the egg and breadcrumbs (not the flour), until they all have a nice, thick, sticky coating of breading on them and you can't see any mozzarella peeking through at all. This ... look. This is a fucking nightmare. There's no way around that. But, it's important, too!
Mozzarella is cheese, after all, and like cheeses do, it will want to melt when you expose it to multiple hundreds of degrees of heat. That's good! Melty, stretchy cheese is the goal, here. But: Weird, saggy, drooping, misshapen wads of fried cheese, on the other hand, are not the goal. So you want your fried mozzarella to go into the oil with a thick coating of sticky breading, so that it will emerge from the oil with a nice firm carapace of crunchy breading that will hold its shape. The way to do that is to encase it in layers of the stuff. OK?
Well that was just the worst goddamn thing. Really the worst. The good news is, the breading process filled you with a righteous hatred of your mozzarella-hunk oppressors, and very soon you will get to dunk these bastards in screamingly hot oil and shriek fuck youuuuuuu at them, and give them the thrusting double-bird. To that end, grab a deep-sided skillet, plunk it down over medium heat on the stovetop, and heat up an inch and a half or two inches of sturdy oil in it. Canola or vegetable, please; peanut will give your fried mozzarella a weird taste, olive will burn, and I wouldn't have figured I would have to tell you that not only is "Pennz" not an actual variety of oil, but it also emphatically is not OK for cooking mozzarella.
It'll take a couple minutes for your oil to get hot; this buys the breading on your mozzarella pieces extra time to adhere itself to them. After those couple of minutes, check the oil with the old reliable wooden-spoon trick you remember from all the other times you fried stuff: Dip the tip of a wooden spoon in the oil, and if it bubbles like it's cooking, the oil is ready to go. If you don't have a wooden spoon, drop a few breadcrumbs in the oil; if they sizzle like they're cooking but don't turn dark right away, the oil should be ready to go. (If you don't have a wooden spoon but do have a frying thermometer, first of all why, and do you always do things the backward way, but also anywhere from about 350 degrees to 375 should be OK.)
And now ... fry these damn things! In batches, small enough that they're not bumping into each other in the pan. They should start sizzling vigorously the instant you lower them into the oil (if they don't do that immediately, the oil's not hot enough and the breading will get soggy and greasy), and it should take each batch maybe three minutes to get golden-brown on all sides.
Of course you want to nail both crispy outer breading and uniformly melty interior mozzarella to perfection, but the most important thing during frying is to get the breading right; if you have to, you can stick the fried mozzarella in a medium-hot oven to get the cheese melty, but this is the only crack you'll get at producing the crispy exterior. In any case, after a few minutes in the oil, each batch will be golden-brown all over, and you can haul them out to drain on a drying rack or a paper towel.
By now the tomatoes in that tomato sauce—hey, remember that tomato sauce? Oh god is it on fire—have broken down and some of the liquid has simmered away and the color has deepened and, hey! Tomato sauce! Niiiiiiice. Good work. Remove it from the heat, and toss in maybe a fistful of chopped basil.
And ... [drumroll] ... that's it. Wasn't so bad, was it? Well nobody held a gun to your head, jerk. Let's just eat.
Fried mozzarella tends to get presented in the same way in pretty much every dining establishment on earth, and if that's how you want it, that's cool: Array the mozzarella on a plate around a cup of the hot tomato sauce, sprinkle it with a pinch of that Parmigiano-Reggiano, and voila. Although it's probably caloric and cholesterol hell to pair the two, your fried mozzarella will get along fabulously with an intense, furious Caesar salad, the sharpness of the latter setting off the creamy richness of the former.
Or, another way to go is to line up some hunks of fried mozzarella in a crusty sub roll, scoop some of the tomato sauce across them, and toss some fresh baby arugula on top of that. The idea of a sandwich filled with hot breaded cheese may strike you as monstrously evil, and so it should, but good God is it satisfying: layers of crunch around a stretchy, creamy, fatty core, salty and tart and arugula peppery, an outrage, but the best kind.
Fried mozzarella was never exactly going to be the most upstanding or physiologically healthful choice, but damn, when you rescue it from the miserable purgatory of bar snack and casual chain menus, it rewards your senses tenfold. If it makes you nostalgic for the sad sports bars where you encounter its lesser string-cheese brethren, pour some water in your beer and flush a $20 bill down the toilet.
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. Peevishly correct his foolishness on Twitter @albertburneko, or send him your creepy longform hate-missives at firstname.lastname@example.org. >Image by Sam Woolley.