The shift from “What should I buy?” to “What can I make?” has been, for me, a slow but subtle one. It’s almost like learning a new habit and then practicing it – over and over (and over) – until it becomes unconsciously ingrained into the sometimes automatic process of consumption and acquisition.
But there are always those places we fear to tread. The thing we are convinced we cannot do. And, for me, until I push myself past that place of fearful misgiving – a sort of self-convinced outcome of failure – I avoid whatever that task/experiment/activity is and plunk down my dollars instead.
Cheese was one such obstacle for me. Cheese-making. I was convinced it was hard. Or complicated. Or required some sort of innate skill. Not true on any count. It’s actually crazily easy… and fun… and liberating.
This ricotta cheese recipe is adapted from The Homemade Pantry: 101 Foods You Can Stop Buying and Start Making by Alana Chernila (one of my suggested essential cookbooks). I love this book so much. Her writing style and approach are so easy-going… so reassuring; I have become more fearless in the kitchen because of it.
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Alana suggests cream as an option and does not insist on the salt. She also uses a lower setting for the cooking temp than I have ended up preferring. Her recipe calls for whole milk, but I’ve also experimented with different types of milk (e.g., whole, skim, etc.). It will work with as low as 1% milk – though you will see a difference in consistency (it’s a bit more rubbery) and in taste (not as rich… more watery in flavor). It still works perfectly well… especially for any item in which ricotta is but one of several ingredients; however, if you’re hoping to feature the cheese as the star of your meal, I’d go with an organic whole milk and savor the heck out of it.
1/2 gallon organic milk
just under 1/3 cup lemon juice (2 small or 1.5 large lemons)
1/8 tsp salt
- Ice a large pot; this will help prevent scalding. (Just throw one cube in and move it around the entire base of the pot until it has completely melted.)
- Place the pot on the stove but do not turn on the heat. Pour in your milk and lemon juice and stir, without touching the bottom of the pot (we want to prevent scalding!), for 3-5 seconds.
- Turn the heat to medium (for me, on an electric oven, this is a “5” – between 4 and 6), and track the temp of your mixture using a candy (or cheese) thermometer.
- Allow the milk/lemon mixture to heat slowly to 170° F. This process can take anywhere from 30-50 minutes, depending on your oven burner, the pot, the weather, etc. I like to check the pot every 10 minutes or so to ensure it’s rising steadily but not too quickly, and to give it a gentle stir.
Once you’ve reached 170° F, increase the heat to medium-high (say 6-7 on an electric stove) and – without stirring or touching your cheese in any way – carefully watch the thermometer until the temp reaches 205° F. As soon as the temp hits 205° F, turn off your burner and remove the pot. Let the mixture sit for 10 minutes. Again – no need to fiddle with it. Just let it sit and rest.
- At this point, it should look like soupy cheese. Transfer the cheese curds to a sieve or strainer lined with cheesecloth or butter muslin. Use a container (like a tall pitcher) to catch the liquid underneath.
- Let drain for 10 minutes, then transfer the curds to whatever storage vessel you wish. It will keep in the fridge for only 2-3 days, so you’ve got to use it quickly!
- I’d highly recommend keeping and storing your whey as well (that’s the milky liquid you strained off the curds). It’s great for all manner of things – essentially giving the milk or water you might use in a recipe a bit of protein boost. The easiest thing to do it just pour it back into your empty milk container. It will keep in your fridge for about 2 weeks.