Monday, December 27, 2010

Cheesemaking 101 a la Venissimo

"If you can't make ricotta, you probably shouldn't be in the kitchen."

So says Chef Jack Fisher of Nine-Ten--according to Gina Frieze. Frieze, the owner of Venissimo Cheese and self-described "Cheese Wiz." Frieze teaches a class on making both ricotta and mozzarella at her downtown shop, and it's great fun.

This is a demonstration class so you won't be getting your hands dirty here, but be prepared to eat. For while Frieze alternates between showing the various steps taken to make both cheeses, she'll also be offering plates of all sorts of decadent cheeses to try, along with a few wines. Among the selections were a delightful Boscetto, a goat cheese infused with truffles, and Verde Capra, a beautiful and exotic blue goat cheese.

But, to the cheese making. Frieze explains that there is some basic equipment you'll need, including a heavy (non-aluminum) pot, non-mesh colanders (the cheese tends to stick in the tiny spaces), a food thermometer, and cheese cloth.

That evening she started with the ricotta because it needs time to strain and drain. Talk about your three-ingredient recipes. All you need for robust ricotta is a gallon of milk (of any fat content), a quart of buttermilk for richness and to add a tangy flavor, and a teaspoon of salt, again for flavor. Okay, if you're a little nervous about whether or not it will all come together you can add a teaspoon of citric acid, but it's optional.

Basically, all you do is combine the ingredients and heat over a medium flame until the mixture reaches 180 degrees--giving it a periodic stirring while looking for curds to develop. Remove the pot from the heat and let it sit for 15 minutes. Then you remove the curds by pouring the mixture into a cheesecloth-lined colander set in a larger bowl.

The whey will rush into the larger bowl, leaving the curds, excuse me--the cheese--to drain.

Now you can pour the whey into another container and use it in a power shake, soup stock, to soak beans, make bread, or feed to your tomato plants. (If you have other suggestions, I welcome them in the comments section.) Then place the ball of ricotta over a strainer and let it drain until the whey is drained out and the cheese has cooled. At this point, you can eat it plain or add flavor enhancers--honey, lemon zest, lavender, truffle salt, or herbs, for example. Frieze left it plain and it was smoother and creamier than any packaged version I've had. With this amount of ingredients you'll end up with four to five cups of cheese, but you can easily halve this recipe so you can be sure to eat it within a week.

Mozzarella is a little trickier. Frieze likens it to baking because of the precision that's needed. Again, we're talking few and simple ingredients but it's like watching a good thriller--you're just not sure what the ending will be. Will it all come together in the end or fall apart into little curds?

Our class had a nail biter here. Frieze has made the cheese many times and still admits to the challenge. You need rennet for mozzarella, preferably animal rennet, which comes from the stomach lining of a calf. Yes, you can try vegetarian rennet, which is derived from the thistle, but Frieze doesn't really recommend it. The rennet is dissolved in bottled or non-chlorinated filtered water. Citric acid is also dissolved in filtered water. You'll need a gallon of whole milk, but be sure it isn't ultra-pasteurized. And, you'll need salt for flavoring. That's it.

The method is to first pour the citric acid solution into the bottom of your large stainless steel, teflon, or enamel pot and then add the milk. You'll stir the mixture briskly for 15 seconds and bring the temperature up to 90 degrees over low heat. Then remove the pot from the heat source and stir in the rennet solution using an up-and-down motion, for 15 to 30 seconds.

Cover the pot and let it sit for 10 to 15 minutes--or even 30 minutes--until the curd forms. It should look like a smooth custard and the whey should be a yellowish color. It didn't form? Well, Frieze says you can put it back on the heat at this point and bring the temperature of the mixture to 100 degrees and see if the curd forms then. You'll cover the pot again and let it sit another five minutes. Assuming you've now got curd, you'll cut the curd into one-inch cubes and then put it back on the burner, heating the mixture to 105 to 110 degrees, gently stirring to release more whey.

Then it's time to remove the curds with a slotted spoon and place into a colander to drain.

Now, here's where you'll need some patience. Once the curds have drained, put them in a microwave-safe bowl and heat on high for 30 seconds. That's it. This should release more whey, which you'll drain off. Repeat this again until the curd reaches 135 degrees and gentle kneading will pull the cheese together.

You should then be able to knead the cheese almost like bread and stretch it like taffy until the cheese is smooth and shiny (you may have to reheat it again to help it stretch). For a softer cheese texture, stretch and knead less.

You'll add salt at this point--just enough to get the flavor you want. With this amount of ingredients, you should get six to eight smallish balls, which you can now shape and then place in cool water to firm. You can store it in plastic wrap or cold salt water for up to five days or do what we did--eat it immediately.

If you're looking for a source for cheesemaking supplies in San Diego, Frieze recommends Curds & Wine, which is at 7194 Clairemont-Mesa Blvd. (858-384-6566). You can find supplies online at or And, you can sign up for classes at Venissimo on their website.

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