by: Chef Jim Berman
The best thing about making your own ricotta is the cost. It is less expensive, ounce for ounce, than the commercial stuff. Even with the ups and down of the milk market, you really can not beat the economics of making your own. Perhaps, though, even better is the flavor of the finished product. You are in complete control of that signature ricotta 'twang.' From mellow and luscious to grapey and tangy, the impact is your own design. The texture varies from the plastic container stuff; the curds can be a grainy soft spread or elastic pebbles. Although, there can be an argument for the convenience of making fresh ricotta without being strapped to your supply of the cheese on hand. Rather, you can do well to manage your regular stock of milk and buttermilk. So, I take back the notion that cost is the deciding factor for producing this dairy-fresh cheese. Given the quality, flavor, texture, control and handiness, dosed with the economic factor, all roads lead to the homemade option.
I would say, however, the worst thing about making ricotta is getting past idea that for so long you have been relenting and using the store-bought stuff. Seriously. It is such an easy production, it can slide easily into your prep schedule or as just one other step in the creation of a dish. Time really is not a factor. The acidity of the buttermilk does all the hard work. Here is how it works:
Fresh Ricotta Recipe
1 Gallon, Really fresh whole milk (avoid ultra-pasteurized)
3 cups, Buttermilk
Cheesecloth (or not… keep reading…)
Combine the two milks in a large pot, preferably a stock pot that will not react to the acidity of the buttermilk. I use a steel pot, with a clad bottom designed for use on an induction range. The heft of the bottom surface is to avoid (as much as possible) the scorching of the milk during heating.
Over medium heat, while avoiding constant stirring, bring the milk mixture to around 170°F. A periodic agitation with a heat-resistant spatula of the mixture is adequate to prevent melding a layer of milk to be permanently affixed to the bottom of your pot. I say 'around' because you will see a visual indicator – lumps! That's the good stuff. Those are the cheese curds separating from the whey – the liquidy by-product of the process. When the curds form, remove them to the colander lined with the cheesecloth. You may not need the cheese cloth… here's why: Depending on how much you agitated the milk mixture during heating, the curds may be hearty enough to withstand the 'drain off' of the whey. My suggestion: the first time doing this, use cheesecloth so you do not bare witness to your really good ricotta bidding you adieu as it slips gently down the drain. Allow the finished product to drain for at least thirty minutes, allowing plenty of time for the whey to drain from the curds. Use immediately or refrigerate up to three days, before there is quality loss. This prescription yield is just under 1 quart, after the run-off.
There are other recipes for making fresh ricotta using lemon juice or vinegar as the acid catalyst. Two arguments against using the acid medium: First, lemon juice has varying degrees of acidity that will unpredictably affect the heated milk. Second, the flavor may impact the final product in a way that is not how it is intended. The buttermilk, however, has the flavor profile that does well to impart just the right, ever so gentle, acidic balance to the cheese.
The finished product will need salt to round out the mouth feel. Other than a good dose of sodium, the cheese does well to work right along with however you may choose to use ricotta. There is a myriad of what you can do with the finished product. One of my favorites is a spoonful of the ricotta smeared across a hunk of sourdough with a golden glisten of really good honey. However you decide to use this cheese once you make it, just make sure you make this cheese.