Sunday, April 19, 2009

Blessed are the Cheesemakers

One of the things that stuck with me long-term from reading Animal, Vegetable, Miracle was the chapter on cheesemaking. It had never occured to me that a person could make their own cheese! Since everyone I know buys theirs in the store, I suppose I took it for granted that it must be complicated or expensive or difficult, and never gave it a thought.

So you can imagine that I was pretty surprised to read how easily mozzarella could be made in your own kitchen. Now I may never graduate to, say, cheddar, but apparently a lot of softer cheeses are dead easy. A quick search on Google will yield all kinds of recipes to make riccotta, mascarpone, cottage cheese and lots of other soft cheeses I hadn't even heard of before (historically, I've had pretty tame tastes in certain food groups, and cheeses are one of my pickiest areas). What's more, there are tons of other dairy items you can easily make - sour cream, or cream cheese (who knew it was just strained yogurt?).

My boyfriend and I decided that, someday, we would make home made calzones - with our own mozzarella and ricotta. But in the meantime, until I get the cheese thermometer and the rennet I'll need for the mozzarella, ricotta is so easy that it seemed silly to wait.

The only problem was deciding what to do with it. Ziti seemed so mundane. I didn't want to bury delicious homemade cheese in sauce and pasta. So what then?

Luckily, a dear friend posted something online that I'd never heard of before: Ricotta Pie, or Pizza Dolce, as she titled it elsewhere. Now here is something I can get behind. The decadence of homemade ricotta deserves a fantastic dessert to be baked into. My friend made the choice easy for me.

And so we arrived at step one last night: make the ricotta. There are lots of methods for this, but I decided on the white vinegar recipe I found. (Other methods call for buttermilk or lemon juice.) When cooking, I tend to go one of two ways: the traditional method, or the method that allows me to use what's already in my cabinets. The traditional way of making ricotta involves the whey from making mozzarella, which I can rule out at this time. So vinegar it is!

Ricotta was even easier than yogurt to make, but it was just as time-consuming. And what's more, because you create curds and drain away the whey, it's startling how very much milk is used to make a small amount of cheese. One gallon makes about four cups, or two pounds. That means that three quarters of its volume goes straight down the drain.

That was pretty hard to accept at first, especially since a gallon of Battenkill milk is about five dollars at the farmer's market. Still in all, store-bought ricotta is more than five dollars for two pounds, and this should prove to be much better than that ricotta, so I decided to suck it up.

Homemade Ricotta (Vinegar Method)

1 gallon whole milk (I used non-homogenized)
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/3 cup plus 1 teaspoon white vinegar

Rinse the inside of the pot with cold water; this is supposed to help keep the milk from scalding.

Dump in your milk and salt and slowly heat it (is there any other way to heat an entire gallon of ice-cold liquid?) to 180 degrees.

Remove the pot from heat, add the vinegar, and stir it for one minute. (Stirring too long, I read, makes a rubbery curd.) Cover it with a dish cloth and let it rest for two hours. The recipe says you can let it rest much longer if you need to for the sake of convenience.

Dampen a piece of cheesecloth and place it in a large colander; pour in the cheese mixture. Let it drain for two hours or so.

To test whether it's drained enough, lift it up in the cheesecloth and give it a squeeze. If the liquid runs clear, it needs more draining; milky liquid means that it's ready.

You can keep ricotta for up to seven days, obviously in a sealed container in the refrigerator.

I ended up with a cheese that's much drier than what you buy in the store, and it's delicious. My son was eating it plain off a spoon. So, on to the next adventure - the making of the pie.


  1. I had read both in Bust magazine and Animal, Vegetable, Miracle that cheese was very easy to make, but I remained a little skeptical, but it in fact turned out to be quite easy (although, to be fair, I did very little of the work). It is definitely time-consuming, but I think it was worth it. The ricotta pie is very tasty, and I'm definitely looking forward to eventually doing a calzone. Not in my oven, though.

  2. The bigger pie is still cooking. Glad to hear the mini-pie is good.