This type of cheese requires no aging, cultures, or rennet, making it so simple to make at home.
The cheese has a mild, milky flavor and can be soft and spreadable, or dense and cut-able depending on how you further ‘process’ it – ricotta vs. paneer. Both types won’t melt like other cheeses, so it can be added to hot dishes likes soups or curries (and of course lasagna!), and still remain intact.
The process that occurs to make this type of simple cheese is done by heating whole milk with an acid (ie. buttermilk, lemon juice, white vinegar) causing the milk proteins (casein) to bind together forming soft white curds. These curds are then strained from the liquid (whey) then combined or pressed together to form the cheese. The whey can be discarded or used in smoothies as it is rich in proteins and other nutrients.
Ricotta & paneer (also called panir or queso fresco) are both made with the same ingredients and use the same cooking method. The main difference is that ricotta is left to drain for less time leaving it soft and spreadable, while paneer is pressed after it has drained to form a dense block which can be sliced and used on crackers, or crumbled and used in soups, stews, or as a pizza topping.
The type of acid used – buttermilk, lemon juice, or white vinegar, will all produce slightly different tasting cheeses. I have tried making it using all of them and honestly like them all equally, each having a varying degree of tanginess.
Flavor-wise, the ricotta is rich, creamy and quite tangy while the paneer reminded me both in taste and texture of fresh buffalo mozzarella. It’s amazing how smooth the texture is after being pressed.
To begin, decide what type of acid you will use (both variations and directions are listed in the recipe below, but I’ll just give an overview of both types in these step by step instructions.
Let’s begin! (while the instructions look lengthly, it really is a simple and quick process)
Heat whole milk in a heavy bottom pot (Dutch oven is great for this since its heavy bottom prevents the milk from burning on the bottom of the pan) over medium-high heat, stirring gently until an instant read thermometer reaches 190°F – or just starts to boil. Slow pour in the acid while gently stirring, then remove from heat and let sit undisturbed for 10 minutes. You should notice it curdling almost immediately, if not add a tablespoon more of the acid and bring it back up to temperature.
Place a strainer lined with 3 layers of wetted cheesecloth over a bowl, then gently scoop out the curds using a wire sieve or a slotted spoon. Gently pour the remaining liquid into the strainer as well to get any little curds you missed – try to avoid pouring the liquid directly over the pile of curds, as you don’t want to break them up. Let the curds drain for 5-20 minutes – depending on the consistency you want for your ricotta.
For paneer, let it strain the entire 20 minutes.
For an even drier ricotta (and to make paneer), remove even more of the excess liquid (whey) by gathering up the ends of the cheesecloth then twist the cheese into a ball. Keep twisting until no more liquid is squeezed out. This is the end stage for ricotta. Chill until needed.
For paneer, keep the cheesecloth balled around the cheese, and tie the top securely with string.
Place the bundle over a sieve/bowl combination and place a heavy object over the top to weight it down. I used a jar filled with water. Place the entire set-up in the fridge for at least 4 hours. This will firm and further dry out the cheese.
Here is the finished product! Store both types of cheeses in sealed containers in the fridge and use within a week.
Note: Using non-fat milk may not be as successful to make this type of cheese at home. As once the milk is heated the added acid causes the milk proteins to bind together, trapping in moisture and fat into the curds. If there is not enough fat for the proteins to combine with, you won’t get as much or as dense of curds.
Homemade Ricotta Cheese (or Paneer/Queso Fresco)
- Instant-read thermometer
- Cheesecloth 3 - 12x12 squares
- 2 cups whole milk
- ½ cup buttermilk*
- ¾ tsp salt
Lemon Juice or Vinegar Version
- 2 cups whole milk
- 2 Tbsp lemon juice or distilled white vinegar*
- ¾ tsp salt
- For the buttermilk version, in a large heavy bottom pot (like a Dutch oven) combine the whole milk and salt over medium-high heat, stirring gently until thermometer reads 190°F (begins to boil). Slowly pour in buttermilk, stirring gently until combined then stop stirring and allow to come up to 190°F again, curds should be forming*. Remove from heat, cover and leave undisturbed for 10 minutes.
- For the lemon juice/vinegar, combine the whole milk and salt over medium-high heat, stirring gently until thermometer reads 190°F (begins to boil). Turn off heat and slowly pour in the lemon juice or vinegar, stirring gently until combined – curds should be forming*. Remove from heat, cover and leave undisturbed for 10 minutes.
- For both, line a colander (place a bowl underneath it) with 3 layers of sterilized** cheesecloth then use a slotted spoon or wire skimmer to gently scoop out the curds and place into the center of the cheesecloth. Pour the remaining liquid (whey) through the cloth as well, to strain out any last bits of curd. Try to avoid pouring over the pile of curds as you don't want to break them up.
- For ricotta, let drain 5-25 minutes, or until you get the consistency you desire (depending on how you want to use the cheese). Gather the cheesecloth up to form a ball, twist the ball and gently squeeze to release any further excess liquid.
- For paneer, allow to drain 25 minutes then gather the cheesecloth up to form a ball, twist the ball and gently squeeze to release any further excess liquid. Tie the bundle with a bit of string to secure it and place it back in the colander (with a bowl underneath) and weight it down with a large can of food (like a large can of tomatoes). Place the setup in the fridge for 4-24 hours before using. For flavored paneer, before you wrap the bundle up with string, gently stir in finely minced (fresh or dried) herbs, or for some spiciness try minced jalapenos or a pinch of crushed red chili flakes.
**To sterilized the cheesecloth, place it in boiling water for 3 minutes.
-I purposely listed the ingredients in small amounts so you can get familiar with making the cheese. The recipe makes about 1/3 cup cheese, but the ratios can be scaled up with no problems.