Wednesday, March 27, 2013

How to Make Ricotta Cheese

If you really want your friends to think you're turning into a DIY over-achiever (or a crazy hippie), share with them that you have been making cheese in your very own kitchen.  Be prepared for looks of disbelief and awe.  Allow them to sample your delicious cheese and allow them to believe that you slaved away in the kitchen for hours, wearing a hair net to boot.  Whatever you do, don't let them know how easy it actually is to make cheese...

I found this super simple ricotta cheese recipe in the book "Homegrown and Handmade" by Deborah Niemann.  This delightful book reads as part life story and part instruction book on how to live a more self-reliant lifestyle.  Niemann's book is easy to read and inspiring, demystifying some of those homesteading skills that seem beyond the ability of us mere mortals.  Her section about cheesemaking encouraged me to try the ricotta cheese recipe and I was not disappointed. 

I actually made this recipe for the first time when I was planning on bringing a pan of lasagna to a friend who recently had a baby, but discovered I didn't have any ricotta cheese.  Instead of running to the store with two tired kids in tow, I decided to try making my own.  I was pleasantly surprised by how easy (and fun!) it was.  It's the perfect cheese for a beginner cheesemaker to try. 

Here is what you need to make 2-4 cups of cheese (about a enough for a pan of lasagna):
  • 1/2 gallon of milk (not ultra-pasteurized).  The higher the fat content of the milk, the more cheese you will get.  I recommend using whole milk.
  • 2 tbsp white vinegar
  • Large pot
  • Food thermometer with a clip
  • Colander
  • Cheesecloth, flour sack towel or tea towel

    1.  Pour the milk into the pan and attach the thermometer to the side of the pan.

    2.  Heat the milk to 180 degrees, stirring occasionally.

     3.  When the milk reaches 180 degrees, add the vinegar and stir gently.  The milk will begin to get "chunky" looking.  What you are witnessing is the curds separating from the whey.  Remember "Little Miss Muffet, sat on her tuffet, eating her curds and whey"?  Curds are the cheese.  The whey is considered the by-product of cheesemaking.  Most people dump the whey, but you can use it for soaking grains  or you can drink it, if you like the taste.  I don't care for it, but I've heard of people adding lemon and sugar and calling it "wheymonade".  If you have pets or farm animals, they will gobble it up -it's especially good for chickens and hogs.  In fact, you may have heard of "whey fed pork" - some cheesemaking operations keep and sell hogs, simply as a way to use up the whey and convert it to delicious pork!

    4.  Once the curds and whey have separated, put the whole pot into a sink full of cold water.  The water level should be at the level of the milk in the pot.  Stir the curds.  You want to cool the curds and whey quickly, down to 90 degrees.

    5.  Once the curds and whey have cooled to 90 degrees, carefully transfer the contents of the pot to a cheesecloth lined colander. You can set the colander in the sink and let the whey go down the drain.  If you are saving the whey, place a bowl under the colander to collect the whey (we feed it to the chickens, hogs and barn cats).  Allow to drain until the whey is gone and the curds are crumbly. 

    6.  Use the cheese immediately (fabulous for lasagna!) or store it in a covered container in the fridge for up to a week. 
    This really is a simple recipe.  About the only part you could mess up is the temperature.  If you add the vinegar before the milk reaches 180 degrees, the curds and whey might not separate.  Make sure you have a reliable thermometer and you shouldn't have any problems. 
    As for time commitment, this recipe takes about 30 minutes tops, with only about 5 of those minutes being hands-on time. It takes a while for milk to heat,  then cool, and the curds to drain - you can do something else in the kitchen during those times. 
    Traditionally, ricotta cheese is made from the whey leftover after making a batch of mozzarella cheese (which is really fun, by the way, and not nearly as scary as it sounds!), but that method yields only a small amount of ricotta, maybe a 1/2 cup or so.  This method makes a much larger batch of cheese, but the texture might be a little different than what you buy from the store. 
    Have you ever tried making cheese before?  What kind did you make?  Want to come over and make cheese with me?!?

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