Tonight is pizza night at our house. When I have the time, I like to make the cheese for the pizza myself: ricotta to be dolloped liberally on spinach ricotta pizza, and mozzarella to be grated or sliced for the topping. Today was one of those days. I find it amusing to think that I once hated cheese, well into my teenage years, and continued to eat it reluctantly even a few years after that. Who would have thought that I would one day sign up for a cheese-making class, and come to make not only ricotta and mozzarella, but paneer, goat cheese, and feta! I haven’t moved on to the hard cheeses yet — I hear that they are indeed hard — but you’ve got to save something for later, right? An added benefit of homemade cheese is that, since we get our milk from a dairy farm 25 miles south from us, our cheese is just about as local as it gets. And since it comes in half-gallon glass bottles that can be returned, there’s no packaging waste whatsoever.
I honestly don’t know which I love more: the taste of the final product, or the various textures I get to play with in the process. Squeals of glee could be heard from the kitchen today as I stirred, strained and shaped the cheese curds which were transforming before my eyes. In the process of making mozzarella, there is a stage when the milk first curdles and can be cut into cubes with a knife like white jello. After further stirring, they turn into glistening blobs of all possible shapes that stick together.
At the final stage of stretching the curds, the texture is almost like soft dough, though very crumbly, until the curds begins to stretch and hold together and get firmer. Ricotta, when it has just come out of the cheese cloth, has a faint imprint of the fabric on its surface, making it look like a smooth, firm ball of linen.
Of these two kinds of cheeses, mozzarella requires some more specialized materials and more time. Ricotta, on the other hand, is an easy and relatively quick affair: the preparation takes about 30 minutes and an additional 1-4 hours of draining, depending on how firm you like your ricotta. All you need is milk (I always use whole milk), lemon juice, a dairy thermometer, strainer or colander, and cheesecloth.
Heat 1 gallon of milk to 175 F degrees. Add ¼ – ½ cup of lemon juice and stir. The cheese will curdle within 5 minutes. Pour into a strainer or colander lined with cheesecloth, tie the corners of the cloth together securely, and hang the cheese to drain until it is the consistency you like. I use hooks attached to the door handles of kitchen cupboard doors, but feel free to improvise. When the cheese is ready, take it out of the cheesecloth. At this point, you can flavor it as you wish. A guaranteed way to make the ricotta disappear fast is to make an herb spread by mixing in some minced fresh herbs, minced garlic, and salt to taste.
Wondering what to do with all that whey (the liquid that gets left over when the milk solids are separated)? You can substitute it for water or milk in any baking recipe. We like to use it for breakfast pancakes. You can also use it for soaking grains, or in lacto-fermenting processes to make fermented vegetables or even soda-like drinks. It also makes a good calcium-rich feed for chickens.