I am not sure where the original inspiration to make ricotta came from. It may have been driven by the frustration to find ricotta at the grocery store and/or by its price once found. I love cheese and I consume generous amounts of it. I have been heard to say that feta can be added to just about any dish (and I have been known to do it too). I guess at some point I may have felt that in order to be able to afford my addiction I need to learn how to make cheese. Can't be that hard, can it?
Making ricotta is as simple as it gets. The ingredient list is short and the whole process, start to finish, takes about 15 minutes, most of them brooding over the milk on the stove. The equipment list is a bit more involved but all the items needed should be present in a semi-well furnished kitchen.
1/2 gallon milk
1 tsp salt
3 Tbs lemon juice
Yields: 1 1/2 to 2 C ricotta
Equipment: one large pot, one large cheese cloth, candy thermometer (optional), sieve/colander (also optional but helpful), stove.
Notes on the ingredients: I usually get 2% generic pasteurized milk but I am sure any milk would work. The question of what salt to use in cheese-making seems to spur a lively discussion on the internets. My brief review and 2-month long experience have led me to conclude that for ricotta it really doesn't matter what salt you use - if you want to be fancy, use that kosher sea salt from the Red Sea, but plain old iodized salt from the box with the girl does a perfectly good job. I have been using freshly squeezed lemon juice because as a result of my friend Tedi's generosity I still have a bag of lemons in the fridge (3 Tbs ~ 1.5 lemons); the stuff that comes in yellow, lemon-shaped bottles would probably work too.
Now on to the very complex process of the actual cheese-making. Pour the milk in the pot and heat over moderate heat until the milk temperature reaches just over 100F (38C). Generally, anything between 100F (38C) and 110F (43C) would work. If you don't have a candy thermometer (such as me until yesterday) you can do the pinky test - dip your pinky in the milk and if it feels just a bit hot (like someone with fever) then it's ready. At that point turn the heat to low stir in the salt and then the lemon juice.
As soon as the lemon juice is in the milk should curdle and the liquid should clear. Leave on low hear for a few minutes. Then turn off the heat, put the lid on and leave for a few minutes undisturbed so that the curds can settle and the liquid cools a bit.
Fold the cheese cloth so that you have 3-4-5 layers, line the sieve/colander with it and place in the sink. Pour the contents of the pot in the cheese-cloth lined colander. Tie the diagonal ends of the cheese cloth together, forming a bag with the curdled milk in it and hang above a bowl or sink of a 2 to 4 hours (kitchen cabinet door knobs make excellent hanging places). Do not leave it overnight unless you want really dry, crumbly ricotta. Feel free to squeeze it once in a while but be careful as the contents may be hot. When you are satisfied with the draining (do taste it to see if it is dry enough) move to a box and refrigerate (or eat). That's it.
If you want to make herbed ricotta, add the herbs (and other desired ingredients such as more salt, parmesan, garlic) after the draining. Mix well and leave in the fridge for a few hours for the flavors to blend.
What if the milk doesn't curdle? This has been happening to me lately... add a couple more tablespoons of lemon juice. Maybe my lemon juice is not acid enough.
Suggested uses: Ravioli, lasagna, sandwiches, spreads, potato and pasta salads, etc.
Next weekend - MOZZARELLA! Excited!