Last Updated on August 30, 2023 by Aaron
Kefalotyri cheese is a traditional Greek dairy product with a lineage that dates back many centuries.
Made predominantly from sheep’s milk, or a blend of sheep’s and goat’s milk, this cheese is known for its hard, grainy texture and pale yellow hue. Aged for a minimum of three months, Kefalotyri develops a robust flavor profile that is distinctly salty with a strong aroma. The aging process not only imparts this cheese with its pronounced taste but also solidifies its dense texture, making it an excellent candidate for grating.
It finds its culinary significance in a myriad of Greek dishes such as moussaka, pastitsio, spanakopita, and notably as the primary choice for saganaki—a dish where the cheese is pan-fried to a golden delight.
However, its heightened salt content necessitates moderate consumption, especially for individuals mindful of their sodium intake.
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The Name & Etymology
The name “Kefalotyri” is derived from the Greek words “kefali” (κεφάλι) and “tyri” (τυρί), which translate to “head” and “cheese” respectively. Historically, cheeses in many cultures were formed into head-like shapes during the production process, and Kefalotyri was no exception. The term “head” in the name alludes to the traditional shape of the cheese, while “tyri” confirms its identity as a cheese. So, when combined, “Kefalotyri” essentially means “head cheese” — not to be confused with the cold meat jelly product known by the same name in English. The naming convention in this context reflects the cheese’s form and tradition rather than its ingredients or method of production.
“Kefalotiri” is simply a variant spelling and pronunciation of “Kefalotyri.” Both terms refer to the same traditional Greek cheese made from sheep’s milk or a mixture of sheep’s and goat’s milk. Depending on the region and linguistic nuances, you might hear one name used over the other, but they both point to the same cheese with its characteristic hard texture, saltiness, and pale yellow color.
One of the most prominent flavors in Kefalotyri is its pronounced saltiness. This salt content not only adds to the taste but also acts as a preservative, allowing the cheese to be aged and stored for longer durations. Kefalotyri has a sharpness to its flavor, often described as tangy or piquant. This sharpness becomes more pronounced the longer the cheese is aged.
Behind its saltiness and tang, Kefalotyri possesses a deep, rich umami quality. Umami, often described as a savory taste, gives the cheese its depth and mouth-filling flavor.
Some aficionados also describe a faint nutty undertone to aged Kefalotyri, though this is more subdued than in cheeses like Parmesan or Gruyère. Kefalotyri also offers a strong and inviting aroma.
The tradition of cheese-making in Greece dates back thousands of years, with evidence of cheese production and consumption going as far back as the Minoan civilization on Crete, which flourished around 2000 BCE. While it’s hard to say exactly when Kefalotyri specifically came into being, it belongs to this rich and ancient cheese-making tradition.
During the Byzantine period, kefalotyri is mentioned several times in the texts, including in the Book of Ceremonies as the Orinotyri (local name for kefalotyri) meaning mountainous cheese. It is made with raw ewe’s milk. The cheese became a popular delicacy during that time period.
Cheeses like Kefalotyri, which are aged and hard, have the advantage of longer shelf life and can be stored for more extended periods, making them valuable during times of scarcity.
Today, Kefalotyri has been produced from sheep’s milk or a mixture of sheep’s and goat’s milk. Given Greece’s mountainous terrain and the prevalence of sheep and goat herding, it’s plausible that this cheese developed as a way to remain an integral part of the country’s culinary landscape.
Though it originated in Greece, Kefalotyri (or similar versions of it) can be found in various parts of the Eastern Mediterranean and Balkans. For instance, Cypriots have a similar cheese called “halloumi,” and there are other hard cheeses in neighboring regions that share some characteristics with Kefalotyri.
Kefalotyri, as a traditional cheese, has remained relatively consistent in its primary characteristics. However, like many artisanal products, slight variations can arise based on regions, specific production methods, and the ratios of sheep’s to goat’s milk used (or sometimes cow’s milk).
A higher proportion of goat’s milk might lend a tangier, more pronounced flavor. For instance, a particular aging duration or specific caves for cheese maturation. Most kefalotyri you can find in the market is aged for 3-12 months. A smoked version may also be available.
A popular version of Kefalotyri has been sprinkled with local herbs or spices, giving the cheese an added layer of flavor and making it unique to her brand. You can watch the video of how it’s made (with herbs) in this post.
Cretan Kefalotyri is a version of the traditional Kefalotyri cheese that originates from the island of Crete, the largest of the Greek islands. Cretan Kefalotyri is often used in local dishes to symbolize the traditional Cretan diet. It offers a uniquely pleasant sweet taste.
The broader Greek and regional cheese landscape has multiple cheeses that might be considered similar or related in some aspects. Here’s an overview of the broader family and some variants or cheeses that are often mentioned in the same breath:
- Graviera: One of the most popular cheeses in Greece, it’s made from sheep’s milk, cow’s milk, or a blend of the two. It’s slightly sweeter than Kefalotyri and has a more nutty flavor. Graviera is often used in Greek salads and pies. Read Kefalotyri vs. Graviera. Interestingly, kefalograviera is another renowned Greek cheese, distinct from Kefalotyri but sharing some similarities due to the nature of cheese production in the region. Read Kefalotyri vs. Kefalograviera.
- Mizithra: This is a fresh cheese made from sheep’s or goat’s milk, or a blend of both. Unlike Kefalotyri, Mizithra is soft and moist. It’s often used as a dessert cheese, sprinkled with honey. Read Kefalotyri vs. Mizithra.
- Manouri: A creamy, semi-soft cheese made from goat or sheep milk. It is often used in pastries or served as a dessert cheese.
- Pecorino: While not Greek (it’s Italian), Pecorino is often compared to Kefalotyri due to its hard texture and salty flavor. Pecorino Romano is one of its most well-known variants. Read Kefalotyri vs. Pecorino.
- Halloumi: Originating from Cyprus, this cheese is similar in texture but has its unique character. It’s famous for being grilled or fried because it retains its shape when heated. Read Kefalotyri vs. Halloumi.
- Feta: Another famous Greek cheese, Feta is softer than Kefalotyri and has a tangy flavor. It’s made from sheep’s milk or a blend of sheep’s and goat’s milk. Read Kefalotyri vs. Feta.