One of the things I hear from people constantly, when they comment on the things I cook, is how impressed they are with my ability to make extremely difficult, incredibly complicated things. Usually I just smile and say thank you, because so few people are willing to believe me when I say that really, it’s not difficult or complicated. I mean, some things certainly are. My very first batch of macarons came out surprisingly well, but after several years and making them dozens of times, they’re certainly not something I’d recommend to a beginner. Most things, though, are nowhere near as complicated and difficult as people generally think they are. Case in point: ricotta cheese.
I am not messing with you at all right now. Ricotta cheese is stupidly easy to make. And really, given the price of those little tubs at the grocery store and how easy it is to make it yourself, why wouldn’t you? It takes about 90 minutes but only about 10 of that is actual active work. An hour of that time is just letting the cheese drip, and the other 20 minutes or so is waiting for the milk to heat.
You’ve probably already got the ingredients. If you don’t, they’re not hard to find:
- 1 gallon whole milk
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 5 tablespoons lemon juice
The heavy cream is technically optional. I’ve used all sorts of different combinations. The pictures here will seem like a pretty small amount of cheese, because I was only making a half gallon batch this time. Use whatever milk and cream combination you want. I’ve used a little less milk and a little more half and half, or just the whole milk. I suppose you can use reduced fat milk if you want, but I don’t know why you’d want to. I definitely don’t recommend skim or 1%, but 2% will work. You just won’t get quite as much final product. The way cheese making works is by using an acid, bacteria, or enzyme to bind and remove the protein and fat solids from the liquid part of the milk. The lower fat your milk is, the less fat is going to be available to become cheese. And really, full fat dairy is a lot better for you than most people think. So do us all a favor and use whole milk. It’s the right thing to do. Pour your milk and cream into a large, heavy pot, and heat it to 190° F. Stir frequently. You don’t want the milk to scorch.
Technically, the salt goes in the pot with the milk while it’s heating. I frequently forget to add it until I’m dumping in the lemon juice, and I’ve never had a batch fail. Really, it’s fine either way. Just don’t forget the salt entirely, or you’ll end up with bland cheese. That would be a tragedy. Once you get your milk up to the correct temperature, take it off the heat and add the lemon juice. Stir gently. You want the lemon juice evenly distributed, but you don’t need to beat this or anything. Just swirl it around a bit.
Let the milk sit for about five minutes, then give it a gentle stir. As you can see in the picture above, I’ve got curds forming. If you look in the upper right corner of the picture, though, you’ll see that the liquid is still white and milky. This is not an emergency, just add another tablespoon of lemon juice and let it sit for a few more minutes. Some lemons are more acidic than others, so sometimes you’ll need a little extra.
This is how it should look when it’s ready. The liquid whey is still cloudy, but no longer looks like milk. It’s a bit yellow and translucent. That’s exactly what you want.
To drain your cheese, you need cheesecloth, a strainer, and a big bowl. I do not recommend that cheap cheesecloth that you can buy in little packets at the grocery store. The weave is way too loose and you’ll need at least 15 layers of it to keep your little curds from going straight through. What’s great about good quality cheesecloth, though, is that you can wash it and reuse it over and over again. I got this piece in a mascarpone cheese making kit I bought a couple of years ago. I have no idea why it’s pink. Probably got washed with a red sock or something at some point. Doesn’t matter, pink cheesecloth still works. If you don’t have any tight weave cheesecloth, you can use a tea towel or a flour sack towel. If you need to, you can even use a clean pillowcase. Just don’t use terrycloth, or you’ll wind up with a cheesy ball of lint. Once you’ve got your straining system set up, get the cheesecloth wet and then pour the whole pot of curds and whey into your strainer. Whatever you do, don’t pour the whey down the drain! It’s way too valuable for that! Whey is a byproduct of cheese making, but it’s also incredibly useful. I used some of this to make pita bread, and I’ve still got a jug of it in the fridge, waiting to become something else. Maybe chicken stock.
Once you’ve poured everything into your straining apparatus, just tie up the corners of the cloth and let it drip for about an hour. I let mine hang from the kitchen faucet and sit my whey bowl in the sink.
That green plastic colander is my mom’s old Tupperware. I think it might be older than I am. I know I remember her using it when I was a little kid. I have several wire mesh strainers and colanders, but this one is my favorite.
At this point, you have a decision to make. If you like softer, wetter ricotta cheese, just let it drip for an hour and then it’s ready to go. I like my ricotta a little more dry and crumbly, so I squeeze the ball of cheese inside the cloth a couple of times while it’s draining. If you decide to squeeze, and then afterward you decide it’s too dry, just mix in some of the warm whey. If you decide it’s too wet, just put the cheese back in the cloth and give it a squeeze.
You’ll be left with a lovely little ball of soft cheese. If you’re storing your cheese, you can either wrap this ball in plastic wrap (if yours is as dry as mine). If your finished cheese is bit wetter, store it in whatever container you like.
If you’re using it immediately, just break the ball apart with a fork. This stuff is really amazing. I used it to make cheese stuffing for manicotti. It’s also amazing as a spread, especially while it’s still warm, on slices of crusty baguette drizzled with olive oil. You’ll never want to use that stuff in the plastic tub ever again.