Cook it! 2012 April Resolution: Make Fresh Cheese

A lot of people already know how to do this.  A lot of people have also blogged about it too.  I don’t really care, though, because this is the very first time ever that I made this, and I bet there are a lot of people out there reading this that haven’t done this project either.

This month’s cook it 2012 project is fast, easy, and cheap, and aren’t those really the ideal qualities in a good cooking project? (I suppose they can also be the ideal qualities in several other situations, like dates and dentist appointments).

It really is exciting to do a project that only takes about fifteen minutes, costs under $5, turns out completely delicious and makes you feel like some kind of magical food wizard while you’re at it.  

APRIL COOK IT! 2012 RESOLUTION: MAKE FRESH CHEESE

So, I’m calling this fresh ricotta cheese, but that’s not quite accurate.  If I understand correctly, there are a whole family of cheeses that are made by heating up milk, adding acid to separate the curds and whey and then draining off the whey to leave behind the curds (the cheese!).  Technically, real ricotta isn’t made using milk, it’s made using whey.  I’ll be giving that process a try this month too, but since they don’t sell whey at the farmers market or the grocery store I had to start with this.  The cheese that this recipe makes can be used as cottage cheese, ricotta cheese, queso fresco, paneer, and probably some other ones that I don’t know about since I’m no cheese expert….  Whatever you want to call it, this cheese is wonderful used as ricotta in Italian dishes, served with sliced fruit and honey for breakfast, mixed with fresh herbs, pepper and fancy olive oil and eaten on crackers, and a whole realm of other sweet and savory applications.  All you need to get started is milk, cheesecloth and acid.  For the acid you can either use white vinegar, lemon juice or buttermilk.   I used lemon juice, which works great but does leave a lemony flavor behind, so I’ll probably use vinegar next time.  Use the best milk you can find/afford, making sure that it’s not ultra-pasteurized.  I tried a batch with goat milk and another batch with Strauss Organic cow milk.  Both batches turned out great, but I actually preferred the flavor of the goat milk version (because I am a major fiend for goat cheese). Goat milk is always a nice option for people who don’t do well with lactose, and  I’ve also heard that if you  consume goat milk from goats who have been eating poison oak leaves in their diet, it can improve your immune response to poison oak (note: you have to consume the goat products first, before you’re exposed, not after you’ve already gotten the rash).  To make the cheese, heat up the milk to 180 degrees.  Serious Eats has a recipe for five minute microwave ricotta, but I did it the old-school way on the stove.  If you have an instant read thermometer, it helps, but you’ll know it’s time to add the acid when the milk comes to a simmer and starts looking frothy.  Pour in a couple tablespoons of your acid, either lemon juice or vinegar, cook the milk for another minute or two and keep stirring, and you’ll see the curds and whey magically separate. At this point, you pour the separated milk through cheesecloth to strain out the curds.  Different recipes have different times for how long to leave everything draining, but it really depends on your preference and what you’re using it for.  I only left mine to drain for a couple minutes because I wanted it to stay fairly spreadable.  If you were making something like paneer, an Indian cheese used similarly to tofu in lots of different curries, you drain it longer and then press it so that it can be sliced into pieces.  (Can you imagine? Homemade paneer tikka masala? Oh my goodness…)Fresh Ricotta Cheese

Cook Time: 15 minutes

Makes: about a cup

Ingredients:

  • 1 quart of whole milk
  • about 2 tbs. lemon juice or white vinegar
  • 1/2 tsp. sea salt

Heat up the milk in a pot on the stove.  Add the salt.  When the milk is simmering or reads 180 on a thermometer, stir in the lemon juice or vinegar.  (I didn’t really measure so much as pour a few splashes of lemon juice into the pot while the milk was simmering.  If you stir for a minute and let the milk keep simmering, the curds will separate.)  Pour into a colander lined with a couple layers of cheesecloth to drain.  I thought the cheese came out the best when I let it drain for about five minutes.  You can eat the cheese warm or chill it for later.  The cheese will firm up more in the fridge, where it can be stored for about two days.

I highly recommend mixing the warm cheese with the best olive oil you have, fresh herbs, sliced scallions, salt and pepper and eating it on crackers (especially if you’re tired after a long day of work and want to sit down, have a cocktail and a small bite to eat, then it’s really great).

If you don’t want to eat it right away, though, you can always do something crazy like make lasagna:I never use a recipe for lasagna since it’s more fun to raid the garden, the pantry and the freezer for whatever things you want to be in the layers.  Yesterday we happened to have some good looking spinach and spring onions in the garden…so that turned into one layer, and then I had a pack of ground veal from Owen Family Farms — humanely raised, pastured veal! — that was in the freezer, so I threw together a veal ragu for another layer.  I cooked the veal in some of the leftover whey along with red wine, canned tomatoes, onions, carrots, fresh oregano and parsley.  And then, this is a trick that j. taught me when I complained that I hate ricotta cheese long ago, you gotta fancy up that cheese a bit before it goes in the lasagna. I used the batch of cow milk ricotta for the lasagna, which was the yield from one half gallon of milk, and it was just enough to do a medium sized casserole dish.  If you want to have a big casserole or a really thick layer, you should definitely use a whole gallon of milk so you get more ricotta cheese.  To make your ricotta layer tasty and packed with flavor, throw the ricotta into the food processor with an egg or two, some garlic powder, chopped parsley or scallions and a pinch of salt and pepper.  It will be far superior to those bland lasagnas with a layer of mushy, flavorless grocery store ricotta cheese.

and then, you know, you just do the lasagna thing: and then pop that baby in the oven until it’s bubbly and delicious looking.

(Yeah, I know that I usually preach the gospel of fresh pasta with 100% local semolina flour, and those are obviously not fresh pasta noodles, but fresh pasta is not usually a project to do after you’ve already been up for many hours and worked the farmers market and your feet are so sore.  Gotta be realistic here).

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If you want to cook along, e-mail me, thejamgirl@gmail.com, a link to the url of your post by May 15, 2012 to be included in the round-up post.

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I can’t believe I made cheese and it was that easy.  I hope you give it a try too!

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11 thoughts on “Cook it! 2012 April Resolution: Make Fresh Cheese

  1. I’m going to try this! I made some with whey left over from making mozerella cheese and it was delicious. Got a gallon of raw Jersey cow milk that I’ll try this one with. Thanks!

  2. Actually, the best way to make ricotta is to first make mozzarella which is super simple (just need 1 gallon milk, renet and citric acid). After the mozzarella is made, what you have left is whey. Then you use the whey to make the ricotta. You get two cheeses out of your one gallon of milk.

    1. threaded- i actually know about making it with the leftover whey from mozzarella (even though I haven’t done it before), but i was doing a project with the bare minimum supplies on a very busy day. i have lots of lemon juice on hand from making jam, and i had just enough time to run into the store and grab a half gallon of milk on my way home. Next time! It’s that happy medium between doing fun DIY projects and spending all afternoon driving around to different grocery stores looking for ingredients… Once I’ve sourced rennet tablets I’m sure it will be much faster. The whey didn’t go to waste, though- it went into the veal ragu layer and another stew i made.

  3. Also, look for Rennet tablets at the grocery store. It’s what cheese makers use to make cheese and doesn’t leave a sour taste like vinegar or lemon juice. I bet that goat’s milk cheese is wonderful.

  4. Wholefoods sells Renet in the dairy section. Hope that helps. Also, Amazon.com sells it for a few bucks. 🙂

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