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If you thought you’d need hard-to-get ingredients, specialized equipment, or a basement cave to make cheese in your own home, think again. In fact, you likely have all the needed supplies for homemade cheese on hand right now. You could be enjoying your own batch of fresh, fluffy ricotta within the hour. Remember how you spent a week cultivating sourdough starter? Right.
Michele Molier, instructor for Murray’s Cheese in New York City talks us through the process of making ricotta at home, beginning with a really inspiring take on why to do it: “It really refreshes my passion for cheese,” she says, “because it comes together so easily and beautifully.”
Easy. Beautiful. Ricotta. How is this even possible?
“It’s possible because it’s a fresh cheese, and they don’t require ripening,” says Molier. Fresh cheeses include the entire French category called chèvre, as well as Italian types such as mozzarella, burrata, and ricotta.
“Ripening is when we see the importance of secondary cultures,” Molier explains. Secondary cultures are certain bacteria that are introduced into the cheese as it ages, such as that which makes blue cheese blue. “All that stuff is for rind and texture development,” she continues. “When you’re working with a young, soft, fresh cheese, you only need starter cultures, and those exist basically already, in and around the milk as ambient bacteria.” The same concept of utilizing ambient bacteria, consequently, is also what makes your sourdough work.
So you, too, can be nerding out on your own batch of curds by the end of the day, or even the end of the hour, with this step-by-step guide that will have you feeling like a cheese sorcerer, regardless of how easy it is. “There’s not much that can go wrong. It’s low risk, fun, and the reward is huge,” encourages Molier. “I mean, you can make cheese at home!”
- 2 cups whole milk
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon vinegar, lemon juice, or citric acid
- Small saucepan
- Cheesecloth or clean towel
- Colander or mesh strainer
- Thermometer (optional)
- Slotted spoon
Don’t sweat getting fancy with milk or lemon juice, advises Molier: “It’s important that it’s straight up, basic, whole milk. Protein and fat content become different the more you treat milk,” and the protein and fat are what coagulate to become your ricotta. Enriched milk does little to actually enrich the outcome. Same goes for the acid element; white vinegar is preferred, or “good, old fashioned produce aisle lemons,” says Molier. Try citric acid if you want to get clever about it.
Finalize your setup by layering the cheesecloth or towel over the colander, and placing them in the sink.
- Olicity Reusable Cheesecloth, on Amazon. Destined to keep the curds and whey apart. Buy Now
- ThermoPro Digital Instant Read Thermometer, on Amazon. If you’d rather not rely on visual cues, and instant thermometer tells you exactly when you’re in the zone. Buy Now
- Milliard Citric Acid, on Amazon. An extra credit approach for your homemade ricotta. Buy Now
In Italian, ricotta literally means “re-cooked,” the first time having been when the milk was pasteurized. Add the milk and salt to the saucepan, and heat over low to medium heat, giving it a slow, gentle stir. “If it gets too hot too fast you’ll scald it,” says Molier, “and nobody likes a scalding.”
If you have a thermometer, you’re looking for the milk to come just short of boiling, about 190 – 200 degrees Fahrenheit.
If you’re proceeding without a thermometer, you need to look for signs that the milk is ready, and there are plenty of visuals to guide you. “You can watch it for when it gets to a shimmery surface, or forms little bubbles around the edge,” Molier advises. “A yellow film or covering and you’re in the ballpark. That slight discoloration is the butter fat.”
So far your ricotta process is exactly like how any other cheese begins. The next step in the process is acidification. “With the proper introduction of heat to the milk, you are changing the PH and causing it to naturally acidify, which is amplified with the citric element or vinegar,” Molier says.
Once you add the acid, which will cause the milk to start to coagulate immediately, you want to turn the heat way down.
“It will instantly start to separate,” says Molier. You’re now starting to see curds, and the remaining liquid part is—wait for it— the whey. You literally learned about this in nursery school. “You can tenderly agitate it a little bit, and let it continue to curdle for about 20 minutes.”
Once your baby curds have been born, the next move is to separate them from the whey. Molier recommends a gentle process, to maintain as much fluff in your curds as possible. Rather than dumping all the curds and liquid into the awaiting colander, “it’s nicer to use a slotted spoon and ladle out the nice fluffy curdles.”
If you have a small mesh strainer, it can also help you lift out the tiniest curds. But if you’re impatient or lack a slotted spoon, simply pour out the contents of the pot into the colander as gently as possible.
Here you have some say in what you want your final texture of ricotta to be. “If you want a spreadable ricotta, don’t let it drain for more than 20 or 30 minutes tops,” advises Molier. “For a denser, crumbly ricotta, let it drain longer.”
“The great thing about fresh cheeses is that you can have them right after production. For impatient dairy queens, fresh cheese is the way to go!” says Molier. Enjoy your still warm ricotta with crackers or toast with a drizzle of honey for immediate satisfaction.
If you want to store it in your refrigerator for later use, note that fresh cheese doesn’t have the shelf life of aged cheeses. Molier recommends keeping it for no more than three to five days, “So make plans for that ricotta.” A simple recipe, and a simpler directive.