(Shhh, It’s Not Really) Ricotta
A month or so before I left my hometown to spend a year as an exchange student in India, my parents took me and the rest of the family across the river to the Big City of Portland to eat Indian food, I believe, for the first time. I have no recollection what we ate other than palak paneer. For those of you pitiable enough to have never eaten it, palak paneer is a spinach curry with cubes of Indian farmer cheese. It’s heaven on your plate, spice in your belly, and squeak between your teeth. I was instantly in love.
Farmer cheese, meet Alice. You’re going to be very happy together.
When I arrived in India, I started learning Hindi by helping my host mother in the kitchen (yes, my spice vocabulary in Hindi is probably rivaled only by my street animal vocab). We rolled out roti, stewed daal, and sauteed onion sabji. We also made our own paneer (and yogurt, but that’s another story). The first time my host mom said she was going to do this, I thought I had mixed up the word for “buy” with the word for “make”. I hadn’t. Turns out, making paneer is as simple as heating milk, adding lemon juice, stirring, straining, and draining.
I cooked paneer for friends and family back in the states several times. Each time, I would start making it too close to the meal time, and never let it drain enough. I’m a lazy maker-of-things, so I also never pressed it, or put it in a mold to get a nice cube-like (cubular?) shape.
The thing about paneer, though, is that it is just one variation of the simplest type of cheese possible – farmer cheese. It’s not cultured, probably can’t even read or write, and doesn’t require rennet. Fromage blanc (cow milk), chevre (goat milk), and tvorog (… Russian milk) are all the same basic thing. Ricotta is another super simple cheese, but with one important difference – it’s (traditionally) made from the whey leftover from other cheese-making endeavors. Even the word can tell us that – “ri” = re (do again) and “cotta” = cook.
Thing is, fat tastes good, and whey only has traces of fat, so some wise guy (or lots of wise peeps) realized that if you follow the same process to make ricotta out of whole milk, you get something that resembles ricotta in flavor and consistency, but is boatloads tastier. Instead of ricotta being a sort of use-em-up leftover make-do, it could be a delicacy in of itself. Okay, maybe it was a bunch of wise guys, but however you cut it (he he, he he), nowadays you get hipsters and urbanistas making a whole milk farmer cheese and calling it ricotta. Add cream and it would be mascarpone, so I’m not sure why the name ricotta has stuck, but it has.
Literalist that I am, I resisted this sacrilegious tendency, until the day I caved and made some.
It’s delicious. I’m a convert. So sue me.
The full story of the differences between whole milk “ricotta” and whey ricotta, mascarpone, paneer, quark, etc. is, I think obviously, far more nuanced than I am presenting. It’s easy to spend hours, or at least a good 20 minutes, browsing the wikipedia pages discussing the exact differences and regional variations (interestingly, quark and tvorog have the same etymological root). I invite you to have at it. For now, I’m content to start dropping the scare quotes and let this delicious cheese be called ricotta. If words can’t change meaning over time, then I’m an ocelot. (Can’t I just be one anyway?)
Whole Milk Ricotta
- 1/2 gallon whole milk (I used raw)
- juice of 1 lemon (I used Meyer)
- pinch sea salt
Heat the milk to 190° in a heavy-bottomed pan (he he, it never gets old), measuring the temperature with a thermometer. I used twist-ties salvaged from veggies to attach my candy thermometer to a wooden spoon to hold it in the milk at a good depth (not touching the bottom, but fully immersed). If you don’t have a digital thermometer, fear not, you too can jury-rig a solution.
Stir the milk occasionally to prevent burning.
When the milk reaches 190°, add the lemon juice and turn off the heat. Stir a few times, just until you see curds. It was very rapid for me, maybe only 10 seconds after adding the acid.
Take out the spoon and let the contents of the pan sit for 5 minutes without stirring.
Pour the curds & whey into a cheese-cloth lined strainer. If you’re doing this with a full gallon, you could upgrade to a colander, but for this quantity, my general purpose strainer was a better size. Let the curds drain out of the whey for one hour.
After the hour is up, transfer the ricotta to a storage container with an air-tight seal, and keep it in your fridge during those rare moments when you’re not eating it. I have no clue how long it would last if you didn’t eat it within a week. Ours was gone in three days.
If you’re ambitious, save the whey for making re-cooked ricotta. If you’re more my speed, save it in your fridge with grand plans of making ricotta until it starts smelling funny, and then throw it out because you have to return your large glass jar to the dairy farmer. The perfect is the enemy of the good, after all.
Serve the ricotta in a fresh salad with basil, chopped tomatoes, salt, and pepper, spread on toast with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt and pepper, over ice cream, or by the spoonful. If you really can’t come up with a serving method, send it to me and I’ll help you out. I’m generous like that.