How to make cheesy goodness right at home.
A few years ago, if you had asked me what I thought of ricotta cheese, I would have responded with the same enthusiasm I typically reserve for things such as khakis, unseasoned pasta or watching golf on television.
The brightly colored tubs of Sorrento and Polly-O ricotta that dominate grocery-store shelves contain an almost flavorless, mildly sour substance that has the texture of cheap drywall paste.
Commercially available, store-bought ricotta inevitably has to be mixed with Parmesan cheese, herbs and seasonings to help the taste; then with eggs or cream to help the texture before being stuffed into manicotti shells or spread between layers of lasagna.
Eating a big bite spread on crostini or a dollop spooned into a bowl with fruit and honey sounds about as appetizing as eating a mouthful of unseasoned mashed potatoes.
Then I tried fresh, homemade ricotta. With the first bite, a door was opened to a Technicolor world and I am certain I heard “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” playing softly in the background as I savored the creamy, sweet, flavorful ambrosia gracing my taste buds.
Then came another game-changing revelation—this glorious manna can be made at home in minutes without any specialized equipment. The ingredients may already be in your refrigerator, and the results are incomparably superior to any commercial ricotta lurking in the dairy aisle.
Now, let’s get cheese-nerdy for a minute. Strictly speaking, ricotta is not considered a cheese, but a latticino (which means a dairy by-product). Traditional ricotta is made by reheating, straining and draining the whey that’s left over after a cheese, such as mozzarella, is made.
If you don’t have any extra whey sitting around, you can heat some milk, add an acid, strain and drain. It’s that simple. (Yes, technically this is more of a paneer or queso fresco-like cheese, but we’re not here to split hairs, we’re here to make delicious fresh cheese!)
When you add an acid to milk, it creates curds because of a milk protein called casein. Little groups of casein float leisurely around in milk without bonding to anything—that is, unless the milk becomes too acidic.
When you add an acid, the negative charge of the casein becomes neutral and instead of staying by themselves, the casein start clumping together to form curds.
There are many fresh or “pot cheese” recipes available on the interwebs that call for a variety of acids, differing ratios of milk to cream and a range of drain times. After painstakingly testing these recipes I have put this recipe together just for you, dear reader.
8 cups high-quality whole milk
1-1/2 cups high quality heavy cream
1/4 cup lemon juice (freshly squeezed is best, but bottled will do)
1/2 tsp. kosher salt
In a medium, heavy-bottomed pot, heat the milk and cream on the stove over medium-low heat until it reaches 180 degrees.
Add the lemon juice and salt to the milk and stir briefly to combine. Heat over a medium flame for a few more minutes until it reaches 195 degrees.
Remove the pot from the stove and let it sit for 10 minutes. The curds will begin to separate from the whey. If you don’t see cheese forming in the first minute or two, add a touch more lemon juice.
After 10 minutes, pour the mixture through a strainer/colander lined with cheesecloth, a tea towel, or even paper towels if you’re in a pinch, to separate the curds from the whey. (Save the whey to use in pancake, bread, soup or rice recipes!)
Let the whey drain. After about five minutes it will be extremely moist and creamy with small, tender curds. After 15-20 minutes it will be moist and spreadable, but not runny. After draining two or more hours, your cheese will form stiff, dry, crumbly curds that can easily be molded into firm shapes.
Transfer the cheese to an airtight container and store for up to five days.
I prefer it fresh off the stove, drained for five minutes and still warm. Spread this on toasted baguette slices and top with a drizzle of honey and a sprinkling of course kosher salt.
The 15-20 minute drained version is perfect for moist, savory applications like lasagna or ravioli fillings, dips and uncooked sweet dishes like cannoli.
The dryer, crumblier stuff can be used for ricotta gnocchi, pastries such as ricotta pancakes or sprinkled over pizza before baking. However you decide to use it, fresh ricotta is a revelation that should not be missed.
Have fun and make some creamy, ricotta goodness tonight!