Saturday, October 15, 2011

Homemade Ricotta Cheese

Everyone has an inner Garfield, and it's sad that mine is stymied by the scarcity and cost of ricotta here in Korea.  Half a pint (250 g) of ricotta goes for a little over 10,000 won.  It also tastes like a bland rubbery paste.

Homemade ricotta tastes decadent, slightly sweet and creamy.  It's also super easy to make.  Any other cheese I've messed up can be turned into ricotta cheese (mozzarella, yogurt that didn't set, etc.).  All my dairy failures find consolation in ricotta form because it's that easy to make.  Ricotta cheese literally translates to cooked milk.  That's all it is with a bit of acid to curdle it.

What Type of Acid Should I Use?
You can use distilled white vinegar, lemon, citric acid, whey from making cultured cheeses, or cultured buttermilk.  You can also try brown rice vinegar which isn't as distilled and may lend the flavor of the vinegar onto the cheese.  It's easier to get a hold of than most of the other acid agents.  I happen to like the lemon-y flavor you get in the ricotta from making it with lemons, though my favorite acid would be distilled white vinegar.  It's easy to use and very consistent.  I have citric acid (구연산) which is sold for 2,500 won for 100 grams in the baking section of Bangsan Market.  Citric acid makes too small of a curd for me, and the curds tend to be very uniform in shape like grains of sand.  The cultured whey or buttermilk is finicky, takes longer, and you're in trouble if the cultures somehow die.  Also, I'm not sure it's the easiest thing to procure cultured whey or buttermilk here in Korea.  So, stick to distilled white vinegar or lemon juice.  Try brown rice vinegar if you plan on using the ricotta in a lasagna or cooking where the aftertaste won't really matter.

Which Milk Should I Use?
I use whole milk for everything, but you can use low fat milk as well.  I have never tried using skim milk, cause that's for anorexics or fat people who think drinking skim milk actually makes a difference.

I don't use ultra-pasteurized milk though I've had success making yogurt from it.  I've seen blogs in Korea where they've used Seoul Milk which is ultra-pasteurized.  The problem with using ultra-pasteurized milk is that you'll get a lower yield and the curds won't cling together properly as they would with just pasteurized milk.  I get good results with Denmark Milk or Pasteur Milk, which are both not ultra-pasteurized.

What You'll Need to Make Ricotta Cheese
heavy saucepan
wire whisk
paper towels
thermometer (I use a candy thermometer which goes up to 100°C that I bought at the bakery market in Bangsan Market near Euljiro/Jongno-3-ga for 3,500 won.  You can also buy them online at the baking school.)

2 cups milk
2 tablespoons lemon juice or vinegar
1/4 teaspoon salt

When I first started making ricotta, I used the microwave method where you dump all the ingredients in and microwave for 4 minutes then strain to get ricotta.  It's easy, but you can make a much better ricotta (and more of it) if you devote a few more minutes to the process.

Line a strainer with two layers of paper towels.  I'd love for them to be "food-safe" but I got them from Daiso for 2,000 won and god knows if they're even fit to wipe my counters with.  *shrug*  I hope I don't die.  An alternative is to use 2-4 layers of cheesecloth, depending on how fine the cheesecloth is.  Lately, I've been lining the strainer with one layer of cheesecloth and one layer of paper towel inside it so that I can gather the ends of the cheesecloth and hang the ricotta to drain.

First, pour your milk into the saucepan and bring the temperature up to 74°C (165°F).  Whisk frequently to make sure the milk doesn't form a skin or scorch on the bottom.

Then, pour in your vinegar or lemon juice.  Whisk around to combine.  You should see the milk starting to curdle.

Let it sit out at room temperature for 15-30 minutes for the curds to set.  Then, strain the curds into the paper towel-lined strainer.

Let it drain anywhere from 5 minutes to overnight to get the consistency you want.  The longer you drain, the thicker the ricotta will be which is important in terms of how you intend to use it - lasagna, ravioli, gnocci, etc.

Salt the ricotta to taste once you're done draining.  I've found that if you salt while you're heating the milk or developing the curds, it adversely affects the curdling process, and you end up with a lower yield.

From here, you can also press the ricotta into a cheese mold to make a hard cheese, ricotta salata.  I made one from goat's milk and it's aging in the fridge now.  That'll be another post when it's ready to be eaten.

You'll be left with a pot of whey after making ricotta which can be used to make awesome loaves of slightly tangy bread.  But that's another post.

The ricotta will keep in the refrigerator for about a week though it won't last that long if you eat it with a spoon in front of the refrigerator with the door open.  Toss it up with some tomatoes, fresh basil (easy to grow on your own), and pesto for one of nature's best culinary groupings - tomato, basil, and cheese.

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