It is insanely easy to make a fresh cheese that approximates ricotta and can be substituted for it without consequences. Technically, ricotta, which means “recooked,” is made from whey after the curds are removed to make cheese. The whey is left to cool and stand overnight, developing an acidic quality that is necessary for curdling the whey and resulting in the fine-grained ricotta.
There are recipes all over the Internet for “fresh ricotta,” a one-step process that is typically how one produces the Indian paneer or the Mexican queso fresco. You add an acidic ingredient (buttermilk, white vinegar or lemon juice) to milk, bring it to a temperature of 175 degrees, when the curds separate from the whey. You then carefully scoop out the curds and drain them in several layers of cheesecloth. The length of time in draining determines how soft or hard the cheese is, so you would adjust that depending on how you’re using it. For example, if you’re eating it fresh, the initial 15-20 minutes of draining is probably fine. If you’re using it for lasagna or pizza, I’d go for a couple of hours. I don’t add salt to the curds but you could.
Following the excellent directions on Fankhauser’s Cheese Page, I tried making ricotta from the whey left over from the fresh cheese above. While I was making small quantities, I was able to get ricotta from the leftover whey. Fankhauser’s website said that they got 1 pound of ricotta from the whey left after processing 5 gallons of milk into cheese. Since I got such good results from the fresh cheese, I figured why not just substitute it for the ricotta? (Besides, look at the additives in store-bought ricotta, mostly stabilizers like carageenan, guar gum and cornstarch. All plant based but who needs them.)
Although I used to make this with vinegar, lately I’ve been using buttermilk, since we get good buttermilk from the same dairy where we get organic milk in glass bottles. I like the tanginess. Sometime, I’ll do a taste test to see which I like better. I’ve never used lemon juice and I probably wouldn’t since the acidity varies from lemon to lemon. When I can tomatoes I use bottled lemon juice to guarantee the acidity, but that doesn’t appeal to me on the cheese front.
Also, don’t discard the whey. Even though it looks greenish (from the riboflavin apparently), it makes an excellent base for soup. I’ve made leek and potato soup and celery soup from it with great results.
Fresh Cheese a la Ricotta (makes about 1 cup, ½ pound)
1 quart milk (whole or 2% is what I use)
1 cup buttermilk
Line a small sieve set over a bowl with 4-5 levels of cheesecloth. Have a silicone spatula, a thermometer (I use a candy thermometer) and a fine-mesh strainer (I use an Asian skimmer) handy. Put the milk and buttermilk in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and place over medium heat. Cook until the curds and whey start to separate, around 175 degrees. Do not over cook but it’s ok to go to 180. Remove from the heat and slowly scoop the curds into the lined sieve. Let them drain for 15-20 minutes. If you want a harder cheese, tie the cheesecloth in a bundle and suspend the cheese over a bowl for an hour or two. It will lose more liquid and become hard. Store in the refrigerator and use within 3-4 days.