You can't make everything from scratch

...but you can sure try!

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Just because it's homemade doesn't mean it's good

One of my more recent projects was a first attempt at homemade ricotta cheese. The process couldn't be easier: just put milk in a saucepan, heat it to 200F (just below the boil), add acid (usually in the form of lemon juice, vinegar or citric acid crystals), turn off the heat and wait ten minutes. Drain the curds for an hour in cheesecloth over the kitchen sink, add a little salt (and some cream, if you like) and you're done!

I followed that process exactly, but was underwhelmed with the results. The problem wasn't with the process, though. (There are a couple of things that can go wrong, the big one being the addition of too much acid, which makes the curds rubbery.) It was with the ingredients.

I shouldn't still be finding this out the hard way, but it remains true that starting with mediocre ingredients will yield mediocre results. There's no way that mass-market grocery store milk is going to make a memorable cheese. Not that it was bad, mind you. It just had no character and made it seem like homemade ricotta wasn't worth the trouble. If I'm going to make my own cheese, I'm not going to bury it under mountains of pasta and tomato sauce: I want to be able to taste it. But if its taste isn't compelling in its own right, I'm not going to eat it simply with fresh figs and vincotto. (Actually, in this case I did, but I wouldn't do it again.)

It was a poignant reminder that simple preparations require top-quality ingredients.

The following week, I picked up some goat's milk from the cheese stand at the farmer's market that carries the Monforte Dairy products. The end result was much tastier, especially with that added "goat's milk" quality. This was a cheese that was worth the trouble, and that I could happily eat on its own. Next time, I'll try organic cow's milk. And I can't help but wonder what it would be like with raw milk...


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