Nov 06 2010
I vow never, ever to buy ricotta cheese in the supermarket again.
This week we made fresh cheeses at school — as opposed to aged, hard cheeses like cheddar — and my mind was blown by how incredibly simple the whole process is. Okay, I had it easy, being assigned the ricotta cheese, which takes about 20 minutes to make, start to finish.
There are two ingredients in ricotta: one part buttermilk to four parts milk. Pour them in a big pot, heat it up on the stove, and within minutes the mixture will be forming curds you can scoop out with a slotted spoon or sieve. After a few minutes of draining to get rid of the moisture, you’re ready to season with salt and serve.
And serve it, we did — as part of a Warm Salad of Sautéed Black Olives and Fresh Ricotta, which also featured braised leeks and roasted peppers, as you can see above. Drizzled with a little bit of olive oil and served with a couple of crostini, the result was quite the crowd-pleasing appetizer.
Other cheeses my classmates worked on took a bit more work. The fresh mozzarella was made on Monday, but we had to let it drain and stretch and form it on Wednesday. The crème fraiche was left in a warm place for 14 hours before it was ready, and the goat cheese had to incubate and stand for a couple of days. We also made fresh cheese (Queso Blanco), cottage cheese, cream cheese, Indian panir and Mascarpone — which went into a truly epic tiramisu we slaved over later in the week.
In fact, on Friday all the cheese were finished, and the class was able to taste the tiramisu (all made by hand) in addition to a cheesecake composed of all the cheeses we made in house, and even homemade graham crackers. There is something extremely satisfying about knowing you constructed every single component of a dish, from start to finish.
After all, that’s why I’m here, right?
A few notes about cheese:
- Most cheese are made from heated milk, to which an acid is added. That can mean vinegar, lemon juice, buttermilk, etc. depending on the cheese you’re making.
- Most milk sold commercially these days is both pasteurized (fine) and homogenized, meaning the fat particles in the milk are dispersed and evenly distributed, so that a layer of cream does not form on the surface. If you’re making cheese, seek out an un-homogenized milk, because the homogenized ones often won’t work. We used a homogenized variety for the ricotta, and it worked just fine, but a cheese like mozzarella won’t be as lucky.
- Besides the acid method, other cheeses (like mozzarella and goat cheese) are made with warm milk and rennet, which coagulates the proteins. A starter culture with bacteria can also be used to curdle the milk.
As fascinating as it was to learn how cheese is made, I’ll continue to buy my Parmesan at the store. Those hard, aged cheeses take, well, ages to mature, and you usually can’t find the equipment to make it at the supermarket. It’s a long process that’s best left to artisans.
There’s a good reason we shell out $25 on a wedge of high-quality cheese, and personally, I feel much better now about doing so.