Friday, 5 April 2013

Homemade Ricotta

Did you know that ricotta is not a cheese?  

Technically speaking, real ricotta is a low fat, spreadable milk product made from the whey left over after cheese is made.  

To make it, cheese makers reheat the whey and make a curd from the milk solids suspended within. The name ricotta is derived from this process, and means re-cooked.

If a large amount of whey is not available to you, you can make something very similar to ricotta by adding an acid (vinegar or lemon juice) to warm milk or cream.  The milk will curdle, with the solids separating from the whey, and the whey can then be strained out, leaving only the curd.  This is the method I most often use to make ricotta at home, following the directions provided in method two of this post by Italian Food Forever.

Lately, though, I've had a lot of whey left over from making homemade Greek style yogurt so I thought I'd look further into the idea for making ricotta from whey.

In the posts I found about making ricotta from whey, the whey was quite milky looking.  The whey leftover from my yogurt making was not milky looking at all.  It was quite clear, with almost no milk solids left in it.  

I didn't think it there were enough solids in the whey from my yogurt to yield a batch of ricotta if I used it all by itself, but I did want to incorporate my whey into the process somehow.  

It was time to consider an alternate plan.

I often substitute the whey from my yogurt making for the buttermilk called for in baking recipes, so I thought that perhaps I could use it to make a ricotta recipe that calls for buttermilk.  I searched around and found this recipe from 101 Cookbooks.  

I'd already been to the store by the time I found the recipe so, instead of the gallon of whole milk called for in the recipe, I used the 2 litres of whole milk and 1 litre of whipping cream I had on hand.  I adjusted the amount of whey I used to 750 ml so the recipe proportions would remain the same.  

(If you're working in quarts and cups, the proportions would be 2 quarts of whole milk, 1 quart of whipping cream, and 3 cups of whey.)

I poured the milk, cream, and whey into a heavy bottomed pan and heated them to 175F.  

The instructions in the recipe said the milk would separate into lumpy curds but it didn't.  It was a little curdled but I wasn't confident that it had broken enough that the milk solids would strain out, so I added in another 250 ml of whey (approximately 1 cup) and reheated the mixture to 175F.  

The milk mixture did curdle after I added the additional whey, but not in big pieces.  When I stirred the mixture, I could see that the whey had separated from the curds, but the curds were tiny and still suspended within the liquid.  

I decided to try straining it anyway.

Because I like a little saltiness to my ricotta, I stirred a teaspoon of sea salt into the milk mixture.  Once the salt was dissolved, I removed the pot from the heat. 

I lined a fine sieve with a piece of old sheet material that I use for straining yogurt, and for making jellies.  I set the sieve into the top of my half gallon measuring cup (you could use a pot or a deep bowl instead) and ladled in some of the milk mixture.  

The whey began to strain out quite quickly, leaving the milk solids deposited within the fabric lined strainer.  

As the milk solids built up, the liquid strained out more slowly. I used a silicone spatula to loosen the solids from the fabric every now and again, stirring them back into the mixture in the sieve.  

I continued this process until most of the liquid had been strained out and I was left with about 4 cups of fairly thick ricotta that had a yogurt-like consistency.

Once the ricotta had reached a yogurt-like consistency, I pulled the edges of the cloth up over the curd and put it, still in the strainer, still set over the measuring cup, in my fridge.  I left it there overnight.

After its night in the refrigerator, more whey had drained from the ricotta and it had set into a solid enough mass that whey I turned it out of the straining cloth, it retained its shape. 

We couldn't resist sampling some ricotta right away, and I'm so glad we did.  It had a far smoother, creamier texture than any ricotta I'd made before, and a pleasing, mild flavour.  

I packaged it into airtight containers, measuring as I went.  We ended up with almost 3-1/2 cups of drained ricotta, and a little more than two quarts of whey.  

The whey from making the ricotta had far more milk solids in it than the whey from making yogurt.  

I think there may well be another cheese making project in my immediate future.  ;)

Cook's notes:

You'll have noticed the pink sticker on the whipped cream container in my ingredients photo.  The cream was on sale for half price because its expiry date was the next day.  Making yogurt or cheese is a great way to extend the life of milk or cream.  The cooking process kills many of the bacteria that cause spoilage, enabling you to use it for a longer time.

My ricotta had a pleasing, mild taste that would carry other flavours well.  I'll definitely be making it again but next time I'm going to try adding some other seasonings.  It's quite a thick cheese when finished so it will be easier to add the flavourings before the whey is strained out.  I'm planning to divide the un-strained liquid into two or three batches stir a different flavouring into each batch.  Right now I'm thinking dill and lemon rind in one, cracked black pepper in a second, and maybe one with some sundried tomato and oregano too.