The idea of making cheese at home is kind daunting. There’s talk of rennet and starters and thermometers and precise temperature readings.
Make no mistake, I’ll get to major cheesemaking. One of these days.
Luckily, making ricotta at home is an easy way to get your feet wet. And you’re almost guaranteed to succeed. All you have to do is follow a few simple rules. The biggest one is to use regular, pasteurized milk (see below).
Honestly, this is so simple. I don’t know why I haven’t done it before.
Much like making your own butter, making ricotta is just breaking down milk into its component parts (solids and liquids), then keeping the solids. I’m oversimplifying a little, but that’s basically it.
It’s one of those acts of culinary magic where you transform a few of the most basic ingredients into something worthy of serving to royalty.
The ricotta you make is luscious, creamy, and so sweet and clean tasting. Seriously: I don’t know why I haven’t done this before.
My friend Alyssa recently attended a weekend cheese-making course at a little farm in Vermont. She came back with a notebook full of cheesemaking wisdom. More on her adventure in a post to come soon.
I left my photocopies of the farm’s ricotta recipe at the office, so I used Bon Appetit’s recipe instead, which was similar.
How to make ricotta
To make ricotta, you just need to add an acid element to a pot of simmering milk. In this case, I used lemon juice, but you could also use white vinegar, etc.
The acid makes the curds (milk solids) separate out from the whey (milk liquid). You skim off the curd, strain it, and…voila! Ricotta!
It’s really that simple.
How pasteurization works (and why it matters when you make ricotta)
This is important. When you make this ricotta, be sure to use pasteurized milk—not ultra pasteurized.
It’s a small detail, but it makes a big difference. Now, I’m not a cheesemaking expert (yet!) by a long shot, but here’s what I’ve gathered.
When milk is processed, it’s heated (i.e. pasteurized) to lower micro-organism counts and make the milk safe to drink. In regular pasteurization, milk is heated to 145 degrees F and held there for a half an hour.
Ultra pasteurized milk is heated to a higher temperature for a shorter amount of time (163 degrees F for 15 seconds). In terms of cheesemaking, this damages the calcium and protein that bind milk proteins together to form curds.
Oh, and those boxes of milk that you see sitting unrefrigerated on store shelves? They’ve effectively been sterilized, or heated to 285 degrees F for 1 or 2 seconds.
To make this ricotta, be sure to pick up regular pasteurized milk—not ultra pasteurized or sterilized.
Most large grocery stores in the U.S. will carry a few different kinds of milk. Just read the label carefully so you grab the right one.
In Boston, I bought regular old Stop & Shop brand milk. Of course, the better the milk, the better flavor your ricotta will have. If you can get your paws on regular, pasteurized milk from a local dairy, definitely use that.
Equipment for making ricotta
You don’t need any fancy equipment to make ricotta. Just grab a package of cheesecloth at the store. You can find it at most major grocers and at stores like Target/Walmart.
Aside from that, you’ll need a colander, slotted spoon, and a big pot.
Let’s get started! This recipe is from Bon Appetit. You can find it here.
From Bon Appetit
16 cups whole pasteurized milk (that’s 1 gallon)
2 tsp. kosher salt
6 Tbls. lemon juice
Yields about 3 cups fresh ricotta
Line a colander with cheesecloth
Grab your cheesecloth.
And a regular ole kitchen colander.
Unfold the cheesecloth (it’ll be really long and a little shreddy on the edges). Fold it over into four layers and set it in your colander.
Set the colander in the sink.
Juice your lemons
Do this ahead of time. You’ll need about 2 large lemons.
Simmer the milk and salt
Put the milk in a large, heavy bottomed pot.
Toss in the salt.
Bring the milk to a simmer over medium-high heat. Keep an eye on the pot as the milk is getting hotter. Milk likes to boil over when it really gets rolling. Lower the heat a little if you need to. You don’t want the milk to scorch on the bottom of the pot.
Add the lemon juice to the simmering milk
When the milk has started to simmer, toss in the lemon juice.
Give it a stir. Simmer for another minute or two. (That’s all, it won’t take long.) The milk should start to separate and get kind of chunky looking.
Skim the curds off with a slotted spoon or skimmer.
Transfer them into your colander. (If your stove isn’t right next to your sink, set the colander in a large bowl and bring it to the stove to do this.)
Keep skimming until you’ve removed all the curds. Let them drain just for a minute for really soft ricotta—or a little longer for something closer to crumbled goat cheese in texture.
My friend Alyssa, the one who went to the cheese class in Vermont (and who’s also a culinary grad, so she knows her stuff), told me to save the whey that’s leftover in the pot and use it to boil pasta. It adds good flavor.
Transfer to a bowl. Serve immediately, or refrigerate and use within 2 days.