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By Cindy Nawiesniak

From cow to cannoli, making ricotta cheese at home

If you think of cheese as something fancy, to be served on a gray slate cheese board and accompanied with a glass of wine, that is a modern incarnation of an ancient food. Cheese has existed for as long as humans have kept dairy animals such as goats, sheep, cattle, and even buffalo. It is believed that cheese was discovered by accident when someone long ago used an animal stomach as a container to carry milk. The naturally occurring stomach enzymes, or rennet, turned the milk into a solid mass to produce the first cheese. Turning milk into cheese converted a fragile and highly perishable liquid into a solid, nutrient-dense food that could be stored for a long time.

Since that time cheese making has evolved into an art form as modern cheese makers manipulate bacteria, yeast, and temperature in stainless steel vats to create an artisanal product. Even so, the original, simple methods are still in use today. So simple, in fact, that you can easily make several types of cheese at home.

If you have a well-stocked kitchen, you will have much of the equipment already available. Here is a list of what you need:

  • Two-gallon nonreactive stock pot. (Stainless steel preferred. Do not use aluminum.)
  • Measuring spoons
  • Colander
  • Thermometer (instant read, +/-2 degrees preferred)
  • Chinese "spider" or stainless steel skimmer
  • Long-handled spoon (stainless steel preferred)
  • Cheesecloth or flour sack kitchen towel

A great place to start for a beginning cheese project is a fresh cheese that uses heat and acid (lemon juice, vinegar or citric acid) to coagulate the milk solids. Ricotta is a mild non-aged cheese that you can make in the morning and pipe into a cannoli shell by evening. You will need:

1 gallon of milk (see below for more details)
1/4 cup white vinegar or fresh squeezed lemon juice
1/2 – 1 tsp salt

Step 1
Source your milk. For this recipe I recommend cow's milk. If you do not have a source for raw milk (preferred), you will need to do some label reading at the store. Use milk that is low-heat pasteurized (145 degrees) or high-temperature pasteurized (165 degrees). Do not use ultra pasteurized (UT) or ultra high temperature (UHT), because the higher temperatures change the structure of the milk proteins and your recipe won't work. Health food stores are a good place to look for the type of milk you will need.

Step 2
Make sure you have all the kitchen tools listed above. You will need to sanitize all your equipment. You can use your dishwasher, but for items that don't fit, wash in hot water and dish soap. Air dry completely before use (towel drying can recontaminate your equipment). Sanitize your equipment right before you are ready to start your cheese project, since leaving it sitting out on a counter can introduce new contaminants.

The cheesecloth or towel you will use for draining can be sanitized by placing it in boiling water for five minutes and then air dried. The cloth or towel must be completely dry before you use it to strain your cheese.

Sanitation in cheese making is very important. It will make your cheese safe to eat and also extend its shelf life.

Step 3
Using the stock pot, slowly bring the milk up to 170 degrees Fahrenheit. Gently stir as the milk is heated to prevent scorching. Add two tablespoons of the lemon juice or vinegar to the pot, and gently stir. Maintain the temperature at 170 degrees. Curds should start to form and rise to the top. If curds don't start to form, add more vinegar or lemon juice one tablespoon at a time until curds start to form. Gently push the curds to the center of the pot as they rise to the top. Then turn off the heat and allow the curds to rest for 15 minutes.

Line your colander with cheesecloth and set it over a bowl to catch the whey. Skim out the curds and place them in the colander to drain. You will need to hang the curds to get them to drain completely. One method is to put a wooden spoon across a deep pot and tie the drainage cloth to the spoon. It will take from one to several hours to drain. The longer you drain your curds, the drier your cheese will be. Once it is the consistency that you like, salt to taste, place it in an airtight container and refrigerate it. (If you collected the whey that drained off, it can be used to make baked goods, or put into smoothies or frozen into cubes for dog treats.)

That's it. Your ricotta can be used the same way you would use store-bought cheese. It will keep in the refrigerator for up to seven days. The yield from one gallon of milk will be from 8 to 16 ounces of cheese depending on the milk you use.

Find supplies and equipment online:

Recipe adapted from

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