Making ricotta is sort of like getting into the union. You must already have a union job before you can get into the union and in order to make true ricotta you must already have made some cheese. Real ricotta is a dairy product (technically it is not a cheese) made from whey. Whey is a byproduct of cheese making; in particular, ricotta is made from the whey left over after making pecorino, an Italian sheep’s milk cheese.
To make true ricotta, the fresh whey is left to stand for 12-24 hours which increases its acidity. It is then heated to a temperature very close to boiling. This causes any remaining protein to coagulate into very fine curds which are skimmed off, drained through some cheese cloth, and allowed to cool.
We don’t really know how long people have been recycling left over whey into a secondary product. Some argue that it is mentioned by Cato the Elder in his De Agri Cultura which was written around 160 BCE. Others claim that the Arabs brought the technique to Europe when they conquered Sicily in the 10th Century.
As usual, our ancestors knew a good thing when they saw it. Whey is packed with important nutrients including protein and riboflavin (vitamin B2). In fact, the Vikings used to drink whey and use it for pickling fish and vegetables. Its acid nature makes it a great pickling agent. Other uses for whey include: replacing the water in any bread recipe, or buttermilk in other baking recipes; feeding it to farm animals, pigs in particular, love it; seasoned with spices it can be used to marinate meat; or pour it on your garden as a fertilizer. Modern dairies often send their whey to be dehydrated and used as a component in the various protein powders favored by body builders.
Even if you don’t have your cheese maker’s union card, you can still make ricotta (or something similar) at home. You just need good whole cow’s milk, salt and citric acid. Citric acid is a crystalline substance that looks a lot like sugar, but tastes like a thousand lemons. If you’ve ever tasted Sour Patch Kids or other super sour candies, you’ll recognize the flavor. Citric acid is sometimes called “sour salt” and can be easily purchased in stores which specialize in Indian ingredients because it is used to make paneer. You can also mail order it from a cheese making supply company. I have seen other recipes for ricotta which use lemon juice or vinegar as the acid component, but I think it’s easier to get the dosage just right with citric acid.
Whole Milk Ricotta
adapted from Ricki Carroll
Makes about ¾ – 1 pound of ricotta
Several pieces of equipment are important for this recipe. You must have a properly calibrated thermometer to measure the temperature of the milk. Test your thermometer by putting it in rapidly boiling water to see if it reads 212F.
You will also need a small fine mesh strainer, no bigger than about 2-3 inches in diameter. This is used to remove the curds from the pot. You can also use a skimmer or perforated ladle, but make sure the holes are not too big.
Finally, you need good quality cheese cloth. If you can get what is called “butter muslin” from a cheese making supply company you will only need one layer. If you use the cheese cloth sold in most supermarkets, use at least 3 layers because it is not woven as tightly.
½ gallon whole milk
½ teaspoon citric acid
¼ cup cool water
½ teaspoon kosher salt
Mix the water and citric acid together in a small bowl and stir until the powder is completely dissolved.
Pour your milk into a large and very clean pot. Add the citric acid solution and the salt to the milk and stir well. Put the pot of milk over a medium-low heat and slowly bring it up to a temperature between 185 and 195 degrees F. Do not allow it to boil. Stir often with a rubber spatula, scraping the bottom to prevent scorching.
You will see the curds begin to form, they are very tiny, perhaps the size of poppy or sesame seeds. After a while the curds will separate from the whey and you will see patches of greenish-yellow whey in the pot. When the curds and whey are completely separated, the whey will not look milky. You can see this by dipping a spoon in and pouring the liquid back into the pot, as it comes off the spoon you’ll be able to see if the whey looks milky or if the liquid is more clear in between the particles of curd.
One the curds and whey have separated, turn off the heat and leave the pot to stand for 10 minutes.
Prepare a strainer or colander by lining it with butter muslin or cheese cloth (see note above) and set it over a large bowl.
Use your small fine mesh strainer or skimmer to gently ladle the curds out of the pot and into the lined strainer. Use slow motions so as not to stir up the curds. When you have ladled as much of the curd out as you can then pour the remaining whey through your strainer or ladle and into another bowl to get the last bit of curd. Don’t discard the whey.
Tie the corners of your butter muslin or cheese cloth into a knot and hang the ricotta over a bowl to drain for 45 minutes to an hour or until it stops dripping. An easy way to set this up is by sliding a chopstick behind the handle of one kitchen cabinet door, through the knot in the butter muslin and then behind handle of the adjacent cabinet door. Then place a bowl on the counter below to catch the draining whey. Just be sure the knot is tight enough to hold the weight. You can also tie the cheese cloth to the faucet in your sink and hang it there with a bowl beneath.
Save the left over whey! You can’t make any more ricotta out of it but it has many uses (see above). I recently used it instead of buttermilk in pancakes to great acclaim.
When the ricotta is finished draining, unwrap and eat! Or use it to make ravioli, eggplant rollatini, lasagna, or cheesecake. If you would like a creamier consistency, you can add a couple of tablespoons of cream and mix thoroughly. It is also makes a stellar breakfast with a little honey drizzled on top. It will keep in a covered container in the refrigerator for 1-2 weeks.