Accidental Ricotta. Isn’t all cheese intentional? Perhaps making ricotta cheese at home started with an ancient accident.
A homesteader’s kitchen arsenal includes knowledge of crafting dairy products. Knowing how to make butter, sour cream, and basic cheese keep these ingredients fresh and handy without added preservatives. And homemade dairy products taste much better.
Cheese is a coagulation of the milk protein casein. Quite an unappetizing definition for such a delicious product. And cheese comes in many forms, flavors, and textures depending on how it was made and from what animal the milk derived. Some needs rennet to combine curds into something solid. Harder cheeses are aged for a long time. But softer, fresher versions like ricotta can be made the same day and require very few additional ingredients.
The Basics of Making Ricotta Cheese
- 1 gallon pasteurized or raw whole milk, not UHT or ultra-pasteurized
- ¼ cup unchlorinated water
- Either ½ tablespoon citric acid, 2/3 cup lemon juice, or 2/3 cup white distilled vinegar
- Cooking thermometer
- Fine-weave cheesecloth, butter muslin, or clean tee shirt material
Many online tutorials provide instructions on how to make cheese at home, especially fresh varieties like ricotta. And most ricotta recipes require heating the milk in a pot on the stove until it is early boiling, which can result in burned milk if it is left alone for even a couple minutes. This technique is fine if you intend to stand by the stove and stir constantly until milk reaches 200 degrees.
The last few times I attempted making ricotta cheese, it was a pleasant accident. And accidental ricotta is just as delicious as the intentional kind.
I learned years ago how to make yogurt from scratch, dumping a gallon of whole milk into a slow cooker and letting it heat on low for three to four hours. After the milk tops 160 degrees to kill any existing bacteria, I turn the appliance off and let the milk cool to 110-120, the perfect environment for growing probiotics. If I turn the slow cooker on before church then attend the three-hour meeting, I arrive home just in time to turn the heat off.
But one Sunday, I forgot about my yogurt as I socialized after my meeting. When I got home, a wrinkly skin floated atop steaming milk. It was nearly boiling.
I had four choices: Throw the milk out. Cool it off then feed to my dogs and chickens. Make curdled yogurt that tasted overcooked. Or make ricotta. Deciding to try yogurt again the next day and pay more attention to my timing, I chose the ricotta.
My kitchen tools list has the necessary cheese-making ingredients and implements. Thirty-minute mozzarella makes a regular appearance so I have cheesecloth and citric acid, even if I haven’t stocked up on fresh lemons. And at this time, a friend had come home from church with me and she got to learn, within the five minutes she spent in my kitchen, how to make cheese at home.
I mixed my acid with bottled water. Got a clean square of cheesecloth from a zippered plastic bag. Lined my colander. And made accidental ricotta.
Making Ricotta Cheese in a Slow Cooker
Start with raw or pasteurized milk. Don’t worry about listeria or raw milk benefits because after it reaches 160 degrees it will no longer be raw. Do not use UHT or ultra-pasteurized milk; this product has been heated so high the proteins are damaged and will not curdle properly. Also, do not use skim or 2 percent milk. Using a lower-fat milk won’t ruin the cheese but it’s pointless. The casein is within the fatty portion of the milk, so a reduced-fat or nonfat product will result in very little ricotta though the initial gallon of milk will be about as expensive as whole.
Empty milk into a slow-cooker that holds at least one gallon and turn onto the low setting. Milk can also be heated on high if it is well monitored so it does not scald. Heating on low allows you to leave for several hours without burning the milk. Place the lid on the slow cooker and let cook for several hours until it reaches 189 to 210 degrees.
Dilute the acid (lemon juice, vinegar, or citric acid) in the water. If using municipal water, consider keeping bottled water in your pantry for making cheese because chlorine can affect curd. Stir the acidified water into the milk. The milk must be over 189 degrees to curdle properly and, if it is, soon you should see a separation of tiny white curds and yellowish whey. Let stand for a minute until curds and whey are well separated. If whey still looks opaque and creamy, add more acid.
Line the colander with the cheesecloth. If you wish to save the whey for your garden or livestock, place the colander over a large stock pot. Carefully scoop the hot curds and whey into the cheesecloth. Curds will stay within the cheesecloth while the whey will drip, like water, into the pot.
At this point, the ricotta will taste like the acid you used to separate it. Unless you want an acidic product, lift the colander from the pot without disturbing the cheesecloth. Run cool water over the ricotta, rinsing it. Let the colander sit on a countertop or over a pot until most of the dripping has stopped.
Tie up the corners of the cheesecloth into a bag. Hang the bag from a strong kitchen faucet or from a rolling pin set across a deep stock pot, to let more liquid drain from the cheese. If you want a wet ricotta, only drain a few minutes. A drier product should hang 15-20 minutes.
Untie the bag and empty ricotta into a small mixing bowl. Salt to taste; one half to one tablespoon per pound of cheese is usually just right. For a smoother product, a few tablespoons heavy cream or melted butter may be stirred in. Ricotta may be immediately consumed, used within a recipe, or covered and refrigerated up to a week.
Immediately rinse the cheesecloth then let it sit in a container of hot, soapy water to loosen curds that have embedded within the threads. Afterward, the cloth may be hand-washed using hot water and more soap or may simply be placed with the next batch of laundry. Wash cheesecloth that same day to avoid unpleasant ripening. Once it is fully dry, fold and store within a plastic bag so it is ready to use for the next batch of accidental cheese.
Knowing how to make cheese at home, especially the simplest and quickest recipes, gives you access to fresh dairy products. It also allows you to use milk that would otherwise be thrown away, giving it a second chance within a new dish.
Do you know how to make cheese at home? If so, what’s your favorite kind to make? Let us know in the comments below.