Yes, I am that crazy that I am now making my own cheese! Actually, making ricotta is supposedly very simple, so I decided that I would give it a try. (It was my day off, why not?) The recipe sounded simple enough…1/2 gallon of whole milk, 3 tablespoons of lemon juice, and a teaspoon of salt. That’s it – all you need to make your own creamy ricotta cheese. If you have never had fresh ricotta, you are missing out. Unlike the processed brands found in grocery stores, fresh ricotta has a light airiness about it. Without sounding over-dramatic, it has the texture of what you would imagine a creamy cloud. The flavor is subtle, yet with a sweet tang, and with millions of uses and recipes, fresh ricotta is certainly a treat to cook and bake with.
With much anticipation, I set to work boiling a large pot of whole milk. And in this process, I certainly tested the “watched pot does not boil.” I stood there, in front of the stove, for what seemed like hours. I was excited to get to the curdling stage and so, like an impatient child, literally stood and watched milk boil. (I know you are thinking, what kind of time does this girl have to sit and watch milk boil? Unfortunately things like this just really intrigue me.) The recipe called for the salted milk to come to a slow boil. And so I watched as it began to simmer, thinking ok – just a few more minutes. And then it boiled lightly and I thought, “now?” To be sure, I let the milk come to a full rolling boil. I reached behind and grab the lemon juice, and by the time I turned back around, the milk formed a thick foam and almost appeared to begin curdling (picture on right). I dumped in the lemon juice quickly and gave a stir to find large curds already formed. (The recipe said that it would take 1-2 minutes after the addition of the lemon juice for the curds to form – clearly my curds were as impatient as I was.) To be on the safe side, I let the milk boil for an extra minute, and then fished out my curds using a small mesh sieve. The recipe directed the ricotta drain for 1 minute. Well, it took me about 5 minutes to remove all the curds, so by the time the last addition went into the colander, I was much past the original “draining” time. Oh well, I figured it would be fine. I was excited enough as it was that I had curds at all!
I popped the cheese in the fridge to cool and again began a very impatient wait for the cheese to chill and my first taste test. When the chilling time had expired, I anxiously dove into the bowl of ricotta, anticipating my first light, fluffy, creamy taste of the homemade cheese. What I got was something else entirely. A large firm curd, this cheese was unlike any ricotta I had ever had. While the cheese had good flavor, the texture was “feta-like” instead of the creamy cloud I anticipated. I have to admit, I was entirely disappointed. I had spent the better part of an afternoon, making and then chilling my cheese, and pretty much all for nothing. (now this is not to say that I didn’t stand at my kitchen island snacking on the cheese all night long) but it wasn’t the creamy spread I was hoping to enjoy on crackers.
My first try was not successful. While not a failure entirely, I did not achieve the results that I was hoping for. On to round two. For the second time that week, I decided to undertake making my own ricotta. (Needless to say, Scott and I ate ricotta-based meals all week) This time we had invited a friend for dinner and I had promised homemade cheese so I really had no choice but to succeed. I did some internet research about ricotta and ended up even more confused in the first place. For such a seemingly simple process, and so many “easy” accolades from professional and home chefs alike, I was feeling pretty stupid to have failed my first attempt. Yet, as with most culinary topics, everyone who had anything to say about ricotta had something different to say. Some used an acid to aid the curdling process, (which is what I had done with the lemon juice) while some chose to let the milk curdle on its own (aha – I wasn’t crazy to think my milk was starting to curdle on its own). Some used just milk, others added cream, and still others swore by buttermilk. I looked for tips on smaller, lighter curds and all I came up with was the draining time. Understandably, the longer the ricotta is drained, the less liquid, the harder the cheese. If you are looking for a soft and creamy cheese, do not drain for long. My problem was that my curds came out of the pot firm – my draining time didn’t seem to be the problem. So with all my research, I felt none the wiser. I wondered if I had let my milk boil for too long, and decided I would focus on temperature the second time around…seemed to be the only thing I could find to tweak.
Round two: I decided to add some cream to the milk (mainly because I had some on hand that I needed to get rid of ) and brought the milk to a simmer slowly (even longer than the first time). I did not let the milk come to a rolling boil, but instead settled for a slow boil, just past the simmering stage. I added the lemon juice and constantly stirred until I began to see curds formed. Unlike my first attempt, nothing happened immediately after I added the lemon juice. I was worried I had screwed up again because I didn’t get the immediate curds. So I kept my fingers crossed and continued to heat the milk and lemon juice, stirring all the while. To my delight, after a couple stressful minutes, small delicate curds began to form. I kept the spoon moving to keep them separate and began to debate about how long I should wait until my curds were “done.” I kept going for a couple of minutes until the remaining liquid was relatively clear and figured all the fat was now solidified in the form of cheese. I drained the cheese and this time I knew I had gotten it right. A soft, pillowy mass of ricotta sat gloriously in my sieve. I was so proud to see those warm fluffy curds! I did drain the cheese this time around because it was very wet and clearly did need time to sit. Some recipes called for the ricotta to sit anywhere form 5 minutes to one hour. I let mine sit for 10 minutes, as I knew I was looking to create a softer lighter ricotta. (This picture shows my first ricotta attempt on the left, in comparison to my second more successful attempt on the right. You can clearly see the difference in curd size and even texture.)
Back into the fridge it went to cool and my wait began again. Finally, after a good two hour chill (and several sneak peaks to see how it was doing) my mouth was finally treated to the silky, pillowy ricotta. Success at last! I was proud to serve the ricotta that evening on crackers with a drizzle of good olive oil and salt and pepper. The possibilities are endless with fresh ricotta. Later that week, for another appetizer, I tried the ricotta on crackers drizzled with honey and dried cranberries.
Recipe: Homemade Ricotta Cheese
Look for up-coming recipes that utilize fresh ricotta!
Post: White Spring Lasagna
Recipe: White Spring Lasagna