Freshly-made creamy ricotta is a chef’s dream for both sweet and savory dishes. If making cheese at home sounds intimidating, I assure you this simplest of cheeses is achievable by everyone.
Ricotta, Italian for “re-cooked,” is traditionally made with the whey drained off while making sheep’s milk cheese. The whey is cooked again to extract the proteins and fat left over from its first time around in the vat. This works relatively well with the creamy, high-solid sheep’s milk and slightly less well with goat and cow’s milk. I’ve tried it. I cooked gallons of whey for a long, long time and got a couple tablespoons of cheese. The verdict is that boiling down large quantities of whey is not worth it for the stovetop cheese maker.
Whole milk ricotta is, however, decidedly worth making at home. Commercial versions just cannot compare to the luscious, delicate homemade curds. And, due to its very short shelf life, truly good artisan ricotta is hard to find.
Your results will be consistent, creamy and voluminous. While you can make this cheese with whole milk, adding a little cream will encourage your creation toward something akin to velvety clouds you actually get to eat.
To make ricotta, you will need a pot, a bowl, a colander or strainer, a thermometer (a meat thermometer works fine) and some cheesecloth. You can buy cheesecloth in most grocery stores, but can also substitute a tea towel (not the fuzzy terry cloth kind). Your cheese will drain a bit more slowly, but the results will be the same.
4 cups whole milk
½ cup cream
2 tablespoons lemon Juice
½ teaspoon non-iodized salt
Fill a medium pot with water and bring to a boil. Place your cheesecloth (or tea towel) in the boiling water and leave it there for about five minutes. Pull it out with tongs, let it drain over the sink until cool enough to handle. With clean hands, wring it out and line your colander with it. Place the colander (with cheese cloth) over a fairly large bowl.
Put milk and cream in a heavy-bottomed pot over medium-low heat. Heat until the mixture reaches 190 degrees. Check it frequently during this heating time, as milk will go from 180 degrees to boiling over and creating a huge mess in about 2.2 seconds.
When it reaches 190 degrees, remove the pot from the heat. Quickly add the salt and stir. Add the lemon juice and stir quickly to incorporate. Set aside and resist the urge to poke, stir and generally test the mixture for 10 minutes.
After 10 minutes, gently test the curd with a spoon. If you have delicate, wobbly curds that separate from the liquid whey, you have made ricotta! If the liquid portion still looks a bit milky, let it sit for a few more minutes. If, after this additional time, the liquid portion still looks milky instead of more clear, add more lemon juice – up to two more tablespoons. (The acidity of lemons can vary quite a bit, so adding more juice is sometimes necessary. The milk you are using can also affect results.) You can use vinegar, which has consistent acidity but can leave a vinegar aftertaste.
Let your mixture sit another 5 minutes after the second lemon juice addition and you should have fragile, pillow-like curds and opaque, slightly yellow whey.
Ladle the curds into your cheesecloth to let them drain. Depending on the size of your bowl, it may be necessary to empty the collected whey one time. Let the curds drain for 20 minutes to 1 hour depending on your desired consistency. I like to leave a good bit of moisture for most applications so I lean toward the 20-minute drain time.
After draining is complete, I recommend you try a spoonful of the warm, silky curds as your cheese maker’s reward, and then refrigerate. Fresh ricotta is best used right away, but will keep up to three days in the fridge. You can use this cheese in recipes or simply enjoy it on toast or crackers.
Ricotta is meant to go far beyond lasagna layers or cannoli filling. Crafting a batch of fresh ricotta in your own kitchen will open you up to a new culinary adventure that could prove to be just a little bit addictive.
Mixed Grilled Vegetables with Ricotta and Herbs
About 4 cups mixed vegetables. Choices could include asparagus, cherry tomatoes (I put these on a wooden skewer), bell peppers, onions, mushrooms, zucchini or yellow squash and eggplant. Create a mixture that is to your taste and reflects what is in season.
2 tablespoons coconut oil or other oil of your choice
Salt and pepper
1 cup fresh ricotta
2-3 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs. My favorite combination is basil and chives but rosemary, thyme, tarragon, and oregano are all good choices.
Toss your prepared vegetables in oil and generously salt and pepper them.
Cook them over a hot grill until crisp-tender. This will vary depending on the vegetable, so just grab a drink and commune with the veggies while they cook, pulling them off the grill as they are done. Veggies can be loose, on skewers or combined in a grill basket.
In a large bowl, toss the still-warm vegetables with about 1 cup of your fresh ricotta (adjust the amount of cheese to taste). Sprinkle the vegetable/cheese mixture with about 2 tablespoons of chopped fresh herbs.
Enjoy as a side dish with grilled meats or fish or as a light entrée.