How to Make Aged Cheese: “Black and Bleu” Ricotta Salata

Homemade bleu cheese

I’ve been making cheese at home for about 3 years now, and SO many fans have begged me for instructions on how to make cheese after I’ve posted photos of exquisite homemade cheeses.

Cheesemaking is a specific hobby with it’s own set of necessary equipment and supplies.  It’s sort of like wine making or beer brewing.  And some of that equipment and some of those ingredients can be expensive.

To complicate matters, MOST aged cheeses require that you start with a milk that has not been homogenized or ultra-pasteurized.  Cow’s milk goes through 2 processes before it lands in your grocery store.  The first is homogenization.  Fresh cow’s milk separates readily into milk and cream.  The cream floats to the top and is removed in various concentrations to render whole milk (4% cream, about the average amount that natural milk has, depending on the cow’s diet and the season), 2% – 0.5% (lowfat), and 0% (skim milk…blech…).  But the problem is that whatever cream is left will STILL float to the top of the milk, because the fat particles in it are much larger and less dense than the milk.  So the milk is forced through tiny nozzles to break up those fat particles and make them much smaller, so that they will evenly disperse throughout the milk without separating.  This damages the structure of the fat, so that it cannot coagulate properly to produce a curd firm enough to make most hard, aged cheeses (Cheddar, Parmesan, Gouda, etc.), nor smooth and creamy enough to make most aged soft cheeses (Brie, Camembert, bleu, etc.)  Then, most commercial milk is ultra-pasteurized, which means that it is quickly heated to 280F, then quickly chilled back to refrigerator temps.  This kills any potential pathogens in the milk…and also all the healthy, good stuff in the milk, including the natural lactobacillus bacteria that also exist in our gastrointestinal tracts and are responsible for turning milk into such lovely things as yogurt, sour cream, buttermilk, and culture butter, as well as the natural enzymes that digest the milk for us.  (Those who are lactose intolerant will have NO problem AT ALL drinking raw milk, because raw milk naturally comes with the enzymes that break it down so that it’s digestible.  Pasteurization destroys them.)  Ultra pasteurization’s high heat damages the milk proteins in such a way that they can’t support the firm curd necessary to produce most traditional hard cheeses like Cheddar, Gruyere, Parm, Asiago, etc.

All this is to say that the milk you buy in the store can’t really make your favorite cheeses.  Unless you live in a state that has laws permitting the sale of raw milk (check out this map to find info on your state), or unless you can find a commercial milk that is non-homogenized and traditionally pasteurized (ie, heated to only 162F for 15 seconds, rather than 280F), you can’t make most cheeses.  Yes, you can make fresh ricotta or paneer or cottage cheese.  You might even get away with a grainy Brie.

"Black and Bleu" Ricotta Salata...aged, pressed, salted ricotta cheese with black pepper and bleu cheese culture

But you can make a pretty darn amazing wheel of firm, aged cheese at home using this recipe I’m about to give you, even with store-bought homogenized, ultra-pasteurized whole milk and heavy cream.  It’s called ricotta salata, and it’s made from fresh ricotta, which anyone can make at home with a pot, milk, a thermometer, and some kind of acid, like lemon juice or citric acid.  But then we press it in a cheese mold, introduce additional salt and optional flavorings and cheese cultures, and age it in the fridge.  The resulting cheese is truly amazing…what I call “Black and Bleu Ricotta Salata,” and our diners at FRANK have oooed and ahhhed over it many, many times.  You’ll still need a bit of special equipment, namely a kitchen thermometer (which you may already have), and a 7″ Tomme cheese mold with a follower ($20 at New England Cheesemaking Supply from that link, $10 more at Amazon with free Prime shipping).  You will also need cheesecloth, which you can purchase at virtually any grocery store or big-box store, or any fabric store.

You’re also going to need some special ingredients, namely citric acid, which you can pick up at any health food store and most grocery stores in either the canning or vitamin section.  Citric acid is a common ingredient used to prevent browning in fruits like apples and bananas and avocados, and to prevent spoilage while sprouting seeds or canning.  I use citric acid all the time in my kitchen.  You can also order it online at much cheaper prices, like $2 for 4 ounces on Amazon.  And if you decide to make this a bleu cheese, you’re going to need penicillium roqueforti, one of the most expensive bacterial cultures used in cheese production.  You can get 1/4 oz for $33 from New England Cheesemaking Supply, which will last you many years of cheesemaking if you keep the culture in the freezer, or a smaller 2.5DCU at $18.99 from The Beverage People.  This culture needs to be stored in the freezer and the manufacturer tells you it will be viable for 2 years, though in practice, it should remain active for longer than that.  Everything else you need to make this cheese should already exist in your kitchen.

Start with a big nonreactive (ie, NOT aluminum) stock pot or a heavy, enameled cast iron Dutch oven capable of holding well over 5 quarts of liquid.  (You can’t use aluminum because the milk becomes very acidic during this process, which will leach out metals from the aluminum pot…use stainless steel or enameled cast iron.)  I use a stainless steel 2 gallon stock pot.  Nonstick pots will also work, but I got rid of all my nonsticks years ago.  Because you’ll be heating the milk directly on the stove, I place a large, heavy cast iron skillet directly on the stove, and then put the stock pot into the skillet.  This evens out the heat and prevents the milk from scorching, which will ruin the flavor of the cheese.

Pour 1 gallon of milk and 1 quart of heavy whipping cream into the pot.  Add 1 generous teaspoon of kosher salt and 1 generous teaspoon of citric acid:

Stir gently with a whisk, and turn the heat to medium.  Cover the stockpot with the lid.  Now it’s a waiting game.  You want to bring this milk to a temperature between 185F and 195F.  That can take an hour or longer.  Don’t rush it.  Rushing it can result in scorching, which will ruin the cheese.  Better to go low and slow, rather than hot and fast.

Now let’s chat for a bit about what’s happening inside that pot.  Acidic milk products automatically curdle at high temperatures.  Have you ever poured buttermilk into a cup of hot coffee?  Or tried adding a spoon of sour cream or creme fraiche to a boiling soup?  It immediately curdles.  Think about that word…CURD-le.  “Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet, eating her CURDS and WHEY.”  Milk is naturally alkaline or basic on the pH scale, but if it is acidified, either by adding an acid like citric acid or lemon juice…or adding a bacterial culture that feeds on the sugars in the milk and, in turn, expels acid…when it is then heated, the acidic milk separates into curds (which are then turned into cheese) and whey, the greenish, thin, high-protein liquid left over from making cheese, which can then be used in a variety of applications in your kitchen (bread making, smoothies, soups, pouring on cereal or oatmeal, making polenta or risotto, etc.).  The word “curdle” means to separate milk into curds and whey, and while most chefs think of curdling as a bad thing, when you’re making cheese, it’s a joyous thing!

So the citric acid we added to the milk and cream has acidulated the milk, and as it heats, it will naturally separate into curds and whey.  In other, more complex cheeses, this is accomplished through the dual action of bacterial cultures and rennet…a natural enzyme that exists in the stomachs of all mammals as well as in some plants that digests milk proteins.  Those cheeses are much harder to make (though I make them regularly, so they can’t be THAT hard!), and the hard, aged ones will also require that you purchase or build a cheese press…a $300 investment or a weekend of ingenuity.  Luckily, this cheese only needs an informal press you can rig up in your kitchen with whatever you’ve got.

The milk has visibly separated into little curds and whey

Stir the milk frequently with a rubber spatula, gently scraping the bottom of the pot to keep the milk from scorching.  It may be an hour to 90 minutes before the temperature reaches the curdling point…between 185F and 195F.  Make sure you stir the milk well in a top-to-bottom circular motion, to ensure you’re getting an accurate temperature measurement, as well as scraping the bottom to prevent scorching.  At temperatures this high, the milk is pasteurized, so you don’t have to be so particular about sterilizing your pot or anything that contacts the milk at this stage, like you do with lower temperature cheeses like Cheddar and Gouda.  You’ll clearly see that the cheese has separated into fine curds and liquid whey.  But don’t jump the gun the first time you see solid flakes appearing in the milk…wait until you exceed 185F to make sure ALL the milk has curdled.  Once you hit that target temp, remove the milk from the heat and set it on the countertop, and let it sit for 20 minutes.

Now, sterilize your hands with hand sanitizer, and then wash them well.  Wash the Tomme mold and follower with soap and water, and rinse them with bleach water, followed by clean water, to ensure they are sterilized.  (Or run them through the dishwasher on the “sanitize” cycle.)  Also sterilize a ladle in bleach water or the dishwasher.  Prepare the Tomme mold by cutting a piece of cheesecloth that is quite a bit larger than the mold.  Dampen it under running water and squeeze it out.  Then unfold it into a single layer.  Cheesecloth is a little delicate and crazy, but you’ll figure it out quickly.  Once you have a single layer of cheesecloth, fold it in half to make a double layer.  Then line the mold with the damp cheesecloth.  Place a cooling rack over a large bowl, and set the cheese mold on top of it:

Gently ladle the curds and whey into the mold.  The cheesecloth will catch the curds, and allow the whey to filter down into the bowl below.  Do this slowly, there’s no rush.

When you’ve ladled about 1/4 of the curds and whey into the mold, wait a few moments until the excess water has drained, then sprinkle about 1 tsp kosher salt onto the surface of the curds.  Optionally, grind some coarse black pepper onto the curds.

You can leave out the black pepper and/or the bleu cheese culture for a traditional ricotta salata

And/or optionally sprinkle a tiny pinch of penecillium roqueforti culture onto the curds.

The use of this expensive bleu cheese culture is optional...but HIGHLY recommended!

Continue ladling another 1/4 of the curds and whey, salt and optionally pepper and/or culture, and repeat until all the curds and whey have gone into the mold.  You may need to wait a few minutes between ladling curds and sprinkling salt/pepper/culture, to allow the cheese time to drain.  After ladling the final fourth of the curds into the mold, do a final salt/pepper/culture sprinkle, then gently fold the ends of the damp cheesecloth onto the top of the cheese:

At this point, you should pour off and immediately refrigerate the whey from the bowl under the cheese mold.  Keep it for making bread or smoothies or soup or just drinking.  If you don’t want to cook with it, feed it to your pets.  It’s a low-fat, high-protein liquid…one of the most nutritious substances on earth, DON’T waste it on the kitchen drain!  You’ll have about 3 quarts of it.

Place the follower into the mold on top of the cheese:

You’ll notice that the follower’s inner circle will accept a typical can like you’ll find in your pantry.  Place a can there, and on top of the can, place about 10 pounds of weight.

Your imagination’s the limit here.  I place a heavy cast iron Dutch oven upside down on top of it, and that’s plenty of weight.

If you don’t have that, place any big pot upside down over it to give yourself some surface area, then perhaps place another pot right side up on top of that, and fill the pot with water or big cans of veggies.  The weight doesn’t have to be exact, you just want to get some of that extra whey squeezed out of the curds.  Let it sit for 1 hour, then remove the weights.

Sterilize your hands again.  Carefully invert the cheesecloth-wrapped curds onto your hand, then invert them again onto a flat surface.  Gently unwrap the cheesecloth to expose the bare curds.  Gently slip your hand between the cheesecloth and the hard surface, then gently flip the curds over into your other hand.  Then gently lay the curds back into the center of the cheesecloth.  (ie…flip the curd mass over.)  DON’T FREAK OUT if the curd mass tears or collapses or breaks up.  You haven’t ruined your cheese.  Pick up the curds using the edges of the cheesecloth and set the curds back into the mold.  If the mass broke up, gently press everything back into the mold.  Then flatten the top, and salt/pepper/culture the curds.  Drape the cheesecloth back onto the surface of the curds, replace the follower, put it back on the cooling rack above the bowl, and place the 10-pound-ish weight back onto the mold.  Let the cheese sit overnight at room temperature, or for 12 hours.

Discard the whey that accumulates in these pressings, or water your plants with it.  It will be very sour, having cultured from bacteria floating around in the air.

With clean hands, unwrap the cheese, flip it, and sprinkle it all over with a little kosher salt and rub the salt into the cheese.  Rewrap it, put it back into the mold, and place the mold on a cooling rack suspended above a dinner plate.  Put the whole thing into the fridge for a day, then remove, unwrap, flip, rub with salt, rewrap, put back into the mold, and put back in the fridge.  Repeat this until the cheese has been in the mold in the fridge for 3 days.

Rub salt into the cheese once a day for 7 days.

Then remove the cheese from the mold, unwrap, flip, salt, and rewrap, and set the cheese directly on a cooling rack, cheese mat, or sushi rolling mat on top of a plate, and put back in the fridge without the mold.  It will be firm enough to easily survive the flipping without tearing apart.  All that salting has driven out the majority of the moisture.  Repeat the unwrapping, flipping, salting, rewrapping once a day for 4 more days, to total 7 days of salting and flipping (3 in the mold, 4 outside the mold).

After a week of flipping and salting, remove and discard the cheesecloth.  Wrap the cheese in a clean, light dishcloth.  (Flour-sack towels are my favorite, I always keep a zillion of them around.)  Put the cheese in the most humid part of your fridge.  Every few days, flip the whole thing over.  If you notice cracking on the outer edges of the cheese, it’s too dry.  Either lightly dampen the towel surrounding it, or place the whole thing in a plastic container and seal it, or wrap wax paper around the outside of the cloth.  But mostly, forget about it.  If you used penicillium roqueforti, it’s gonna get ugly and gross…the mold will grow into the dishcloth.  This is normal.  Do not panic.  This is how cheese is made, it just doesn’t look like this when it ends up in the grocery store because it hasn’t been scraped yet.  If you didn’t use bleu cheese culture, it’s not gonna get THAT ugly, but you may notice some red or yellow mold, in which case, heat some vinegar in a glass in the microwave with some salt in it, then use some clean cheesecloth to dip in the salty, hot vinegar and rub it onto the red mold.  Red/yellow mold isn’t horrible, but it’s not good.  You want the blue/green/gray/white molds, which are perfectly fine.

What all bleu cheese looks like before scraping

Let your cheese age for a minimum of 1 month in the fridge, flipping every few days.  (This is 4 weeks AFTER the initial week of salting and flipping.)  If you can stand it…wait 2 months.  The longer you wait, the moldier it will get, and the more lovely the interior texture will become.  The bleu cheese culture de-acidifies the cheese and softens the texture, making it creamy and smooth, instead of granular, like traditional ricotta salata.  If you REALLY love bleu cheese, after you notice blue mold growing on the outside of the cheese, you can poke holes down through the cheese with a sterilized wooden or metal skewer.  These air pockets you create will fill with blue mold, giving your cheese and even more pungent flavor.

When you’re ready to eat the cheese, unwrap the cloth and toss it into the laundry with lots of bleach.  Your cheese will be as ugly as it possibly can be, especially if you’ve used the bleu cheese culture.  Don’t worry.  Set the cheese on a cutting board and carefully scrape the mold off with a big knife.  Discard the cuttings, or eat them with crackers if you like bleu cheese alot.  Once you’ve scraped the cheese well, you’ll end up with something gorgeous like this:

What this particular "black and bleu" ricotta salata looks like after scraping

After scraping, your cheese is ready to slice and eat!  Obviously, unless you’ve got a big dinner party planned, you’re not going to eat it all in a few days.  This is a big wheel of cheese, probably larger than you’ve ever bought at one time.  It’ll weigh about 1.5 pounds.  Keep it wrapped in wax paper or parchment in the fridge and it’ll last you a few months.  Any mold that grows, just scrape it off.  If it’s red or yellow, use the hot, salty vinegar trick.

"Black and Bleu" Ricotta Salata, sliced. This cheese was made with penicillium roqueforti sprinkled only on the outside. If you follow these instructions, you'll have veins of bleu inside the cheese!

After all the work you put into this cheese, maybe you’ll understand why REAL artisan cheese is so ruinously expensive at the market.  Most grocery stores don’t even carry REAL cheese, it’s so expensive.  They’re carrying industrial cheese, which is made over the course of about 1 week by machines.  That’s why you can buy it for $6-$8 a pound (still more expensive than most meats and vegetables).  But a REAL artisan, handmade, aged cheese will easily run $30-$80 a pound and higher, depending on how long it is aged.  So take comfort in the fact that you’ve turned probably $8 worth of ingredients into $50 worth of cheese with your blood, sweat, and tears…and a few dollars’ worth of equipment.

Eager to learn more?  Check out Artisan Cheesemaking at Home by Mary Karlin and Ed Anderson, and Home Cheese Making by the legendary Ricki Carroll, who owns the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company…the best supplier of cheesemaking equipment and ingredients.

Please comment below, especially if you’ve had adventures making cheese at home!  And subscribe to my blog near the upper right corner of your screen to make sure you don’t miss any more great articles or recipes!

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