I’ve never thought of cheese as the kind of thing you can make at home. I’m not entirely sure why. But when I think of cheese making, I picture a guy dressed in laboratory whites and a hairnet, stirring a giant vat of some mysterious pre-cheese substance with a utensil approximately the size and shape of a canoe paddle.
Maybe you’re not like me. Maybe you’re of the reasonable, logical persuasion that people have been making cheese for thousands of years (since at least 2300 B.C.!) and so it can’t be all that hard. Well, you’d be right. And you’re probably a cheese-making expert already. The rest of you, with me!
The cheese I describe here is by no means a traditional ricotta. Real ricotta is made from the leftover whey from another cheese making session. But since I’ve never made cheese before, I didn’t have buckets of whey sitting around. In addition, because leftover whey has most of its proteins and fats removed by the previous cheese making session, you need a lot of whey to make a small amount of ricotta–at least a few gallons.
However, you can make a version of ricotta using whole milk. It’s not technically ricotta, but recipes for it are everywhere. And once you taste it, you won’t care about semantics.
Honestly, the taste is unbelievable. It tastes absolutely nothing like any ricotta I’ve ever bought in the store. And no wonder: producers of mass-market ricotta can’t be bothered to properly drain their cheese. Instead, they just pack it full of stabilizers, such as xanthan gum and other chemical “gums,” which turns the product gritty and, well…gummy. Also, when you heat it up (to make lasagna, for example), it can break, leaving you with mysteriously dry lasagna sitting in a pool of water. (That solves that mystery!)
So come along with me, and let’s make cheese! I promise it’s a lot easier than you thought it would be.
Here’s what you need:
You’ll need milk, salt, and lemon juice. The cream is optional, but I strongly recommend it. Adding a little cream to the milk (I used about 1/2 a cup of cream to 3 cups of milk) adds an incredible richness to the finished product. (If you used all cream, you’d have mascarpone.)
Some at-home ricotta makers complain that their cheese ends up too dry. The addition of cream should add enough fat to keep that from happening. For what it’s worth, though, when faced with the decision of cream or no cream, I always choose cream. So don’t do it if you don’t want to. But you really should. But no pressure!
A deep-fry or candy thermometer is also useful. In a pinch, you could use an instant-read thermometer. You could also eyeball it. (But I’d recommend one of these. They’re only a couple of dollars. And then you’ll have an excuse to make fried chicken or fudge!)
Pour the milk and cream into a pot, and add a little salt. Then slowly heat it up to 190° F, stirring the pot pretty often so the milk doesn’t scorch.
My deep-fry thermometer was too long for this pot, rendering the clip useless. I had to awkwardly prop it up against the spoon and the pot handle to keep it from touching the bottom of the pot and giving me a potentially inaccurate reading. I am imperfect. Fortunately, this cheese is not!
When you hit 190° (of if you’re eyeballing, just below a simmer), remove the pot from the heat. Pour in the lemon juice, then gently stir the mixture until you see curds start to form. (This should happen almost immediately.) Usually, I’m trying to avoid curdling in my cooking (I’ll get you right someday, Hollandaise!), so it’s nice to be encouraging it for a change.
Heating up the milk starts the curdling process. Adding citric acid in the form of lemon juice (though you can also buy citric acid by the bottle, if you’d rather) also causes curdling. Heat causes some of the proteins in the milk (the whey proteins, such as albumin and globulin (doesn’t “globulin” sound like a good Halloween costume? (parentheses))) to denature. Citric acid causes other proteins (caseins) to denature.
In their natural state, proteins, which are long strands of molecules called amino acids, are all coiled up semi-neatly. The heat causes them to freak out and uncoil, then in an act of desperation (“Nooo! Don’t make me into cheese!”) then grab on to their neighbors, forming a solid mass, kind of like a group of little kids playing Red Rover. These masses are curds.
Within the curds, the matrix of proteins traps fats and water, which help keep your cheese creamy and moist. Because creamy and moist are adjectives that are very good when applied to cheese, you don’t want to mess with your liquid too much as the curds are forming. As soon as you see the reaction begin, put down your spoon and let the milk and acid hang out and do their thing for 5 minutes.
Then come back, and pour the liquid into a cheesecloth-lined strainer suspended over a bowl (to catch the whey).
Sorry about the lighting. All of a sudden, some clouds rolled in and I had to turn on the kitchen light. It looked like this outside:
Brr. What happened? I used to look out my window and see semi-clothed surfers rinsing off in my front-yard hose! Do you think any might wander by today? No? You pessimist.
Anyway, after you pour the curds and whey into the strainer, it will look like this:
Now here comes the hard part. You have to wait for an hour. When you come back, most of the whey will have drained off, and you’ll be left with a soft, spreadable mass that should plop right out of the cheesecloth (appetizing description, right?). Either eat it right away or put it in a covered container in the refrigerator. But you definitely shouldn’t let it sit around for more than a few days. Not that you’ll be able to contain yourself anyway.
Slice up a baguette. Toast it. Smear with an unholy amount of fresh, homemade ricotta, then drizzle on a touch of honey and a pinch of sea salt. This just might be the perfect food.
Although this runs a close second: a Caprese-stype sandwich, with ricotta instead of mozzarella, tomatoes (don’t laugh–it’s winter and these tiny cherry tomatoes are the only good ones I can find), and basil, drizzled with olive oil and balsamic vinegar.
Go forth and try it for yourself! I guarantee it’s worth it.
Slowly heat to 190°, stirring often:
3 cups whole milk
1/2 cup – 1 cup cream
generous pinch of salt (about 1/2 a tsp.)
Remove from heat, and stir in:
3 Tbs. lemon juice
Keep stirring until you see curds start to form. Then let the pot sit, undisturbed, for 5 minutes.
Pour into a cheesecloth-lined strainer set over a bowl. Let sit one hour.
Use ricotta to top a baguette slice, drizzled with honey and sea salt, or black pepper and a few drops of balsamic vinegar. Or use as a sandwich spread, or in your favorite lasagna recipe, or topped with berries and honey for dessert (or breakfast!)