If I finish all my weekend cooking projects, I often say: “Hmm, maybe I’ll make a peach pie.” (Or a batch of financiers. A pot of black beans. A pint of ice cream. You get the picture.) To which my husband will say: “Please, NO, you’re doing too MUCH, you need to REST.” It’s become a household joke because while he does not think I’m a delicate flower, he does want to avoid a Sunday evening featuring a sink full of dishes, sticky counters, and an irritable wife with sore feet.
So last Sunday afternoon, when I suggested that I “whip up” a batch of homemade ricotta cheese, he looked at me like I was insane—especially since I had just finished ripping my hair out over a quiche that turned out raw in the middle, which I ended up finishing off in the microwave. (#keepingitreal, guys! :) But then he left unexpectedly for work, and I was left to dabble with my cheesecloth and lemons, bottles of milk from grass-fed cows, and Claudia Lucero’s delightful new book, One-Hour Cheese.
Claudia moved to Portland, Oregon in 2006, with a dream of owning a plot of land and growing her own vegetables. Pickling, preserving, and cheese-making soon followed—as did a business of DIY cheese kits, which she sells via her website, Urban Cheesecraft, and Williams Sonoma. In her wonderful book, she shares tips, recipes, and step-by-step photos for simple cheeses that can be made in one hour or less—fresh varieties like paneer, haloumi, or cottage cheese. “All of the cheesemaking techniques shared in this book are based on traditional methods,” she writes. “You will heat milk, add coagulant, drain, mill, salt, and press curds just like humans have done for thousands and thousands of years.”
Ricotta is one of the easiest cheeses to make. It starts with a pot of milk and cream, and a hit of acid, either lemon juice, or vinegar. (Admittedly, this is not technically ricotta, which is traditionally made with leftover whey, not fresh milk, but let’s not split hairs.) Heat the liquid and acid until coagulation occurs, drain the curds from the whey in fine cheesecloth, salt, and eat. C’est tout. Easy, right?
I did all these things, hovering over the pot as I took the temperature of the milk at regular intervals. I thought I saw curds forming, but when I drained the liquid through the cheesecloth, I found no curds at all. Just lots of expensive milk swirling down the drain.
Gloom. Frustration. Despair. Frantic googling. No real answers. The next day, I called Claudia to see if she could help. Here are her tips:
Don’t dump out the pot:
“You might be frustrated, and I don’t blame you,” she says. “Walk away for a while, but whatever you do, don’t dump out the results. Put the whole pot in the fridge for a day if you have to. Take a breather. Surprise results can almost always be saved and turned into something delicious.” (Too late for me, I had already dumped out the pot.)
Check the milk:
Make sure you’re not using ultra-pasteurized milk. “This form of milk has been heated at a higher temperature than pasteurized milk. All the good bacteria are killed along with the bad, and the milk’s protein and calcium have been weakened,” says Claudia. Though it CAN be used “in a pinch” for “loose, acid-coagulated cheese like Meyer Lemon Ricotta,” she doesn’t recommend it. Instead, “look everywhere on the jug to find UP, UHP, of Ultra-Pasteurized and then steer clear.”
Check your thermometer:
The milk needs to heat to 190ºF so “make sure your thermometer is accurate,” she says. “Fill a cup with ice and pour just enough water in to cover the ice. Dip the thermometer into the icy water for about 30 seconds. The temperature should read very close to freezing temperature (32ºF).” As I live in a magical land without home ice-makers (New York City), I employed a similar method, but in boiling water (212ºF).
Add more acid:
“If you use lemons, one of the things that happens with fresh citrus is that some are more acid than others. Squeeze an extra two tablespoons of lemon juice,” she suggests. “If the milk isn’t coagulating, mix in one tablespoon, very gently. It should take affect within one minute. If not, add another tablespoon.”
Use your cooking smarts:
Even if you’ve triple-checked your thermometer, don’t rely on tools alone—use your eyes and nose. “At 190 degrees, the milk is almost at boiling, so it should be foamy, with steam rising from the pot as well as little bubbles forming around the edge.”
Double up the cheesecloth:
“Why not go ahead and double it?” she says. “The finer the holes, the better! With 90-thread count cheesecloth, it’ll drain really slow, but catch all the curds.”
So. Armed with Claudia’s advice, I went to the grocery store and purchased new dairy products. Double-lined my colander. Checked the thermometer. Squeezed my extra lemons. I was ready to go.
Except, this second batch ALSO didn’t coagulate. I tried adding more acid. I used up all the lemon juice and in sheer desperation threw in a tablespoon of red wine vinegar. I lowered the heat; I raised the heat. I googled. I asked for advice on Facebook. I emailed Claudia. My husband came home to experience the full spectrum of my cooking emotions. I could barely talk to him, I was so wrapped up in the drama on the stove.
Finally, in utter frustration and disappointment, I turned off the heat and walked away. My husband washed the dishes as the pot of milk cooled on the stove. And guess what? Forty-five minutes later, he gave it a gentle stir and said, “It’s coagulating.” And it was! Like magic! It was easy-peasy from that point, folks—just a little draining, squeezing, and salting, and I felt like a cooking genius. Tra la la! This morning I woke up, ate fresh lemon ricotta on toast, and all was right with the world. Tonight I tackle homemade mozzarella! (Ha ha.)
Homemade lemon ricotta
Adapted from One-Hour Cheese by Claudia Lucero
Makes 12 ounces
Claudia uses Meyer lemon juice in her recipe, but I just used the ordinary kind. Even though I added the extra lemon juice and a rogue tablespoon of red wine vinegar, my ricotta tastes lovely, not sharp, but suffused with a fresh, bright flavor.
2 lemons (for 1/4 cup lemon juice + 2 tablespoons extra, if needed)
1 quart (4 cups) whole cow’s milk, not ultra-pasteurized
1 pint (2 cups) heavy cream
Cooking thermometer (I used a candy/frying thermometer)
Squeeze the lemons, strain the pulp, and measure out a 1/4 cup of juice (plus 2 extra tablespoons, if you think you’ll need them).
In a large pot, combine the milk, cream, and lemon juice. Heat over a medium flame. Watch the pot and monitor the heat, stirring every few minutes to prevent a skin from forming on the milk’s surface, and to prevent the milk from sticking on the bottom.
When small curls of steam begin to rise and the milk starts to look foamy, begin checking the milk temperature. Claudia says curds will form rapidly as the milk reaches the target temperature, but this didn’t happen for me. Never mind. When the temperature reaches 190ºF, turn off the heat. Allow the pot of milk to cool undisturbed so that the curds can separate from the whey—they need privacy! Claudia waits 10 minutes, but I’d suggest 30-45 minutes. (I think my lack of patience at this point was the problem on my first attempt.)
Meanwhile, double-line a colander with cheesecloth. Place a bowl under the colander to collect the whey. (Even though I ended up tossing my whey, collecting it first helped me see that it appeared clear and free of milk solids—that it was, in fact, whey.) Use a ladle to pour the curds and whey through the cloth.
Drain away the whey until the curds look like creamy, smooth mashed potatoes, about 15-20 minutes. Gather the four corners of the cheesecloth and gently squeeze the cheese. The ricotta will continue to dry out in the fridge, so I’d suggest leaving it slightly moister than you’d like. Add the salt and stir minimally for creamy ricotta. Enjoy immediately, or chill for a firmer texture.
Here’s some extra advice from my Facebook page, frantic web searches, and Claudia:
“It took a lot longer than my recipe said it would,” says Debbie. “The milk has to get to a certain temp and takes a while. Similar to making paneer,” added Pat.
Switch the order:
“I boil the milk first and then add acid after I turn off the heat. Try that!” says Priyanka. “[It’s] so much better than anything you can buy at a store.”
Read up on the science:
Casein proteins, denatured whey, what?! This post from UCLA’s Science and Food blog (go Bruins!) takes each step of the recipe and offers a scientific explanation.
Experiment with different acids:
What’s the difference between lemon juice, vinegar, and buttermilk? What about draining for five minutes, 20 minutes, or two hours (and overnight)? Serious Eats tries all the methods, with great photographs to illustrate.
Enjoy it on everything:
“Try mixing it into risotto,” says Claudia. “Use it as a pizza topping. In lasagna. Experiment with half your batch and add herbs, cracked pepper, seeds, dried fruit…” And if you want a luxurious texture, “add a splash of cream just before serving.”
And for next time…
Reuse your cheesecloth:
“I absolutely wash and save the cloth,” says Claudia. “Rinse it in cold water right away so the curds come off. Let it air dry and then I throw it into the bin with my kitchen towels until I have a full load—I dry it in the dryer, too. You can also wash by hand with hot water and soap and just hang it to dry. If it shrinks up, just wet it before lining your colander and it should stretch beautifully.”