Channeling Clara Peller: “Where's The Cheese”
The food world came to a crashing halt recently as word spread across the Internet that McDonald's newest menu addition – fried mozzarella sticks – apparently didn't contain any actual mozzarella. Scores of photos of breaded shells devoid of cheese popped up everywhere, leading to the question, “Where's the cheese?” If a competitor wanted to be really canny, said competitor could revive Wendy's old “Where's the Beef” gimmick with a cheesy twist. Of course, dear old Clara Peller has long since departed for that Great Fast-Food Restaurant in the Sky, but, hey, if the Madison Avenue types can resurrect Colonel Sanders for a modern ad campaign, why not the “Beef” lady?
The controversy has grown to such proportions that a guy in California has actually filed a class-action lawsuit seeking 5 mil in damages, accusing the Chicago-based burger meisters of fraudulent and misleading advertising. According to the claim, some 3.76 percent of the cheese portion of the sticks in question is actually starch filler. Federal guidelines reportedly prohibit the use of starch in products that are labeled "mozzarella cheese," hence the basis for the fraud charge. Like somebody actually expected McDonald's to use mozzarella di bufala?
My wife and I stopped by a local Mickey D's and ordered a couple of orders of the offending side item and found them to be just average old mozzarella sticks of the variety available at cheap faux-Italian restaurants everywhere. Served with a little cup of unremarkable marinara, they were pretty standard fare, and, yes, there was cheese in both orders. Although I do understand the phenomenon; I've gotten empty sticks at other places on occasion.
Two things come into play: the quality of the product and the ability of the cook. I haven't been back in the kitchen, but I can almost guarantee that McDonald's does not have a little Italian nonna back there hand breading hand cut batons of fresh mozzarella. No, it's more likely that they are frozen sticks of heavily breaded cheap cheese product and it's equally likely that they are being fried to within an inch of their existence, which is another reason the cheese would cease to exist. In addition to the California dude's probably correct assertion that the “cheese” in McDonald's sticks leaves something to be desired, the real problem is that the skills of the people frying them also leave something to be desired. Quickest way to bust a mozzarella stick wide open is to overcook that rascal. Even so-called “low moisture” cheese has some moisture in it, and what happens when water/moisture hits the boiling point? Steam, of course. Considering that the average boiling point of water is about 212° and that the average temperature of frying oil is upwards of 350°, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that explosive steam expansion is gonna happen if you throw something wet into the fryer and leave it there for several minutes. You wanna know where the cheese in the cheese sticks winds up? Check the fryer filters.
Anyway, I've got a better solution. Forget all that angst on Instagram and don't rush headlong to join that cheesy lawsuit. Instead, just make your own fried mozzarella, or mozzarella fritta, as it's called in Italian. It's really not that hard and the results are a darn sight better than any you'll find at McDonald's or at most of the aforementioned faux-Italian places. Here's how you do it.
Flour, seasoned with salt and pepper
Oil for frying
If you can find fresh mozzarella, great. Otherwise, the typical block cheese found in supermarkets will work.
You can use Italian breadcrumbs if you want to zip up the flavor a little. Otherwise, plain breadcrumbs are fine.
Use a neutral oil like canola for frying.
The method I'm about to describe assumes that you'll be shallow frying in a frying pan or a Dutch oven. I actually have a deep fryer, but I know not everyone does. A fryer makes this a quicker and easier process, but pan frying works just fine.
Okay, here's what you do:
Cut the mozzarella into slices or sticks about 1/2 inch thick. Slices work better with fresh cheese because it comes in rounds. The block cheese makes for better sticks. Your choice. Whichever way you go, pat off any excess moisture with paper towels, especially if you're going with fresh mozzarella.
Heat some oil in a deep, heavy-bottomed pan. A cast iron skillet is good; so is a Dutch oven, especially the ceramic coated cast iron ones like those made by Lodge or Le Creuset. You don't need quarts of oil; just enough to completely immerse the cheese sticks. You want your oil to hit a temperature of about 350°. If you don't have a thermometer, and old trick is to drop a crumb of bread into the oil. If it sizzles immediately, the oil is ready.
While you're waiting for the oil to heat, lay out three shallow bowls. Beat the eggs in one. Put some flour in another and some breadcrumbs in the third. This is called a “breading station.” The order for breading just about everything can be remembered by thinking of the abbreviation for February: F-E-B – flour, eggs, breadcrumbs. (There's your Cooking 101 tip for the day.)
Press the cheese slices or sticks into the flour, coating them evenly. Shake off any excess flour and dip the sticks or slices into the eggs, then into the breadcrumbs. Now go back and hit the eggs again and take one more dive into the breadcrumbs. This provides a nice double-coated breading that will hold up better in the high-temp frying conditions.
Working in small batches, carefully add the breaded cheese to the oil. Fry just until golden brown. About a minute will usually do it. Watch closely; if they sit too long, you might as well pack up and go to McDonald's. If you're not using a deep fryer, turn the sticks once while frying to ensure even cooking on both sides. Fish the sticks or slices out with a slotted spoon or similar utensil and drain them on paper towels. Serve 'em up hot, fresh, and delicious.
A little time saving variation here: you can prepare your mozzarella sticks in advance and freeze them for later use. Just lay out your prepared cheese sticks on a wax paper lined baking sheet. When you get a sheet full, cover them with plastic and stick them in the freezer for a couple of hours. Once they're frozen, you can remove them to zip top freezer bags and keep them frozen for a day or two. Don't hold them too long, though: if they build up ice crystals, they'll fry up about the same as the cheap store-bought sticks – or the things they use at McDonald's. Fresh is best, overnight is okay, more than a day or so and you're pushing quality.
There you have it; mozzarella sticks guaranteed to have cheese in every bite.
Buona fortuna e buon appetito!