Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Emergency Ricotta Recipe

I needed ricotta cheese for a recipe (a pasta recipe) but I was feeling too lazy to go to the store.  The I remembered that there is a really easy way to make ricotta style cheese at home using milk and vinegar.

Ricotta cheese, salted and ready to use

Traditionally ricotta cheese is made from the leftover liquid (whey) from making hard cheese.  They take the whey, add vinegar, and basically get a second cheese out of the milk.  Very economical and when I get around to making hard cheese, I can't wait to try it.

Ricotta hanging
to drain off the whey
from the curds.
However, these days, the word ricotta is more flexible, referring more to taste and texture rather than a specific method.  Think of it like the word cheddar.  Cheddar use to refer to a very specific method of making cheese that required a special way of cutting the curds.  Nowadays there are no end of products on the market called cheddar, some of them have no milk in them whatsoever. It's amazing how words change over time.

Emergency Ricotta is simple to make and a great introduction to cheese making.  Most recipes measure milk by the gallon, but since I only needed a small amount of ricotta for my pasta dish, I used a much smaller amount.  Feel free to scale up the recipe if you like.

Before we dive in, a word about vinegar.  I like using natural vinegar for this, however, different vinegars have different acid levels.  Start with one Tablespoon and then add a few drops later on if your milk doesn't curdle.

Also, I'm going to be terribly naughty here and not give you exact temperatures or timing.  In a hurry, I don't have time to deal with finding my thermometer and getting all fiddly with temperature.  Just give me the qualities we need, and let me get on with it.

Besides, people have been making cheese for a few thousand years now, without thermometers.  Then you come to the fact that milk varies from cow to cow and season to season, so the temperature may change from one batch to another.  Getting too precise is counterproductive in the home environment, especially when it's something as simple as making cheese.

If you are one of those people who find security and comfort in the scientific approach to the kitchen, the book Home Cheese Making by Ricki Carroll has just the right balance of precision without getting too bogged down in the rules to prevent you experimenting.  That's where I originally found the inspiration for this recipe.

Emergency Ricotta

1 litre whole milk or even half and half.  Raw (where legal) and pasteurized works well.  Make certain it's not ultra-pasteurized as that won't work at all.  Skim, 1 percent, and 2 percent milk probably won't give good results, as they've been chemically altered, but in an emergency, use what you have.

1Tbs apple cider vinegar, or other natural (not white) vinegar.  Failing that, lemon juice works great.  Even extra sour Kombucha will do the trick.

Generous pinch of salt.

  • In a saucepan combine the vinegar and milk.  Stir well.  Heat up until just below the boiling point when the curds separate and are clearly distinct from the whey, stirring frequently to prevent the bottom burning. Try to avoid letting it come to a boil.
    • As the milk heats up the vinegar will curdle it.  That's exactly what we want to happen.  As it heats up you will get to the point when there are white milk curds and the liquid they float in is basically clear.  That's what we want and that's where to move onto the next step.
    • If you get to just below the boiling point - where you have to struggle to keep it from boiling - but still no separation, it's time to add more acid.  Add a few drops, maybe four or five drops, of vinegar to the milk, stir it in well, wait a minute and see if it separates.  If not, repeat 'till it does.
  • Take the milk (well, curds and whey at this stage) off the heat and let sit undisturbed for 10 minutes.   
  • While it's sitting, get a bowl, a colander and some loosely woven cloth like, oh, I don't know, cheesecloth.   Line the colander with the cloth and put it so it drains into the bowl.  You will also need some string in a bit.
  • When the milk has set, pour into the colander so that the curds stay in the cloth and the whey drains into the bowl.  Use that bit of string to tie up the cloth into a little bag.  Hang the bag over the bowl (picture above) so that it can drip into the bowl.  Leave it there for at least 20 min, I usually do an hour.  The longer you hang it, the more firm/dry the cheese will be.
  • Take the cheese and put it in a large bowl.  Add a generous pinch of salt and mix it in well.  
  • Store in fridge, keeps about a week to 10 days.

cheese curds after draining
See, I told you this was easy.

You can keep the whey in the fridge for a few days, and use it to replace the water in bread baking, or any number of creative ways.  Even as a low fat milk substitute - though it is very watery.  The whey has a lot of nutrition still in it, so adding some to boiling veg, or stews is a good way to take advantage of it.  Keep in mind, this in not a live culture whey so it won't kickstart fermented foods.

Was it affordable?  In that I didn't spend the gas and time to go to the store just for one item, yes.  I also used up some milk that would expire soon... however, I was planning on making yoghurt from it, so it felt more like robbing Peter to pay Paul.  As for actual price - I don't know what the going price of ricotta is these days.  The milk was organic so it was about $4 and made 1 and 1/4 cup ricotta.

Update on affordability:  I went to the shop today and saw that regular commercial made ricotta cheese is $5 for the same amount I made in this recipe.  However, their cheese included many ingredients that I don't stock in my home... I like the stuff I made better, and in the end, it did work out cheaper.

Allergies:  You can make this with many different kinds of milk, including cow, goat, sheep, and a few others.  I haven't tried it with milk substitute like rice or almond, but I don't imagine it would work with that.  There aren't any shops in town that sell goat or sheep's milk ricotta so this is a great recipe for those who can't eat cows milk, but would like to have some cheesiness in their life.

Transitional: This is a great first step to being more self sufficient and less dependent on big industry.  For years they tell us that cheese is far too difficult or expensive to make and we must rely on big business to provide it to us.  Making cheese at home - and you don't have to do it all the time, I know I don't. - gives you the opportunity to understand what goes into making your food and empowers you to know that if you need cheese for a pasta recipe, you aren't 100% dependent on the big corporations to provide it.  Eventually you can work towards meeting the cow or goat that gave you the lovely white liquid... and that's when things get really exciting.

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