Updated February 1, 2009
At work we get our ricotta cheese from a family-owned producer in Connecticut. It arrives carefully packaged in perforated metal containers specially made to allow excess liquid to drain away from the cheese. The product is fresh, delicious, and creamy, which was made even more apparent the day that our cheese supplier didn’t arrive on time. We tracked down something else, in a plastic tub, that was so awful we couldn’t serve it. It was grainy and had a distinct aftertaste that I imagined motor oil would taste like. It occurred to me later, that in a pinch, we probably could have made ricotta that was far superior to whatever it was in that plastic tub.
Traditional ricotta cheese is usually made from the whey drained from making sheeps milk cheeses like pecorino, making it a secondary cheese. The word “ricotta” actually means “re-cooked” in Italian. By strict definition, it isn’t cheese at all, but curds. Anyway, all you need to make fresh ricotta cheese at home is milk and an acid coagulant to produce the curds. It’s very easy and can take as little as a an hour, or as much as four hours, depending on what kind of acid you use and how dry you want your cheese. Whether you use citric acid, vinegar, lemon juice, or cultured milk (buttermilk) to curdle the milk, the process is pretty much the same: heat the milk, add the curdling agent either before or after heating, let the mixture sit to curdle, then drain. The ingredients you choose will of course affect the flavor of your cheese – most of all the milk. As with anything else, using fresh, high quality milk will produce fresh high quality cheese.
The method illustrated in the photographs is adapted from The Home Creamery, by Kathy Farrell-Kingsley. It uses vinegar, which takes longer to form curds, when compared to citric acid or buttermilk. Total time is approximately 3 to 4 hours:
1 gallon of whole milk
1/3 cup white distilled vinegar
1 tsp. salt, dissolved in the vinegar
Stainless steel saucepan
Strainer or colander
Ladle or large spoon
Candy thermometer or instant read thermometer
1. Pour the milk in the saucepan and bring it to 180-190 degrees F, stirring as needed to prevent the milk from scorching. Once it reaches temperature, remove it from the heat, add the vinegar and salt and stir gently, just enough to incorporate. Curds should start to form almost immediately and will signal you to stop stirring. Incidentally, it is important that you use a non-reactive pan that is immaculate because any “seasoning” you have on the pan may be stripped away into your cheese.
2. Cover the pot and set aside for up to 2 hours for the curds to form.
3. After about 2 hours the curds should form a pretty solid mass of curds floating in the whey. Gently scoop the curds and whey into a strainer or colander lined with damp cheesecloth. Let the mixture drain for as little as 15 minutes or up to 2 hours, depending on how dry you want your cheese.
4. After the cheese has drained and is the consistency you want, you may choose add some cream to make it richer, and/or salt, to taste. If you won’t be using it right away or store your cheese an airtight container for up to a week. You can also save the whey and use it in yeast breads instead of water. Farrell-Kingsley says the yield on this recipe is approximately 1-1/2 cups, but when I made it I got almost a quart.
Other Methods and Ideas:
For even richer and creamier ricotta, try using 1 part heavy cream to 3 parts milk. I found that partially substituting cream also resulted in a significantly higher yield.
Citric acid is available through cheese-making supply houses. For 1 gallon of milk, you can substitute 1 teaspoon of citric acid for the vinegar. Add the citric acid and salt to the milk before heating, and heat the whole mixture, stirring only as needed to keep it from scorching. Remove from the heat and let the mixture sit undisturbed for about 10 minutes. Drain to your desired consistency.
Cultured buttermilk can also be used to form the curds. To one gallon of milk, add 1 quart of buttermilk. As when using citric acid, heat the whole mixture. Then remove from the heat and let it sit undisturbed for 30 minutes. Drain to your desired consistency.
You can also use lemon juice instead. A good recipe can be found at Brooklyn Farmhouse.
Try using your homemade ricotta to make a Vegetable Torte.