With worldwide dairy prices going up, the price of cheese has been rocketing upward. In Japan, cottage cheese, at about ¥250 ($2.40) for about a cup, was expensive before prices went up. Now, it's gone from expensive to "obscene" as the price fluctuates between ¥330 ($3.11) and ¥380 ($3.60). If you're not a fan of cottage cheese, this isn't bad news. If you love it (and I do), this is really frustrating. I can't allow myself to pay that much for something which I can eat in two sittings tops. If it's a main protein component, I can eat the whole thing in one go. That makes it much more expensive than a quantity of chicken which will last me through three main dishes.
For quite some time, I've been thinking of making homemade ricotta cheese because it's another thing which is obscenely expensive in Japan. In the past, I've substituted cottage cheese for ricotta in lasagna, but now that the former has gone insanely expensive, I felt it was time to act on making my own ricotta.
Little did I know that cottage cheese and ricotta go hand in hand. First you make one and then you can make the other from its byproduct. The basic recipe for cottage cheese is the same as the Indian cheese called paneer. This recipe is very simple. You boil milk, add an acidic compound (lemon juice or vinegar), let it sit, then drain off the liquids (whey).
Little Miss Moffet would be very hungry about now. My curds are on the left and the whey is on the right.
I followed the instructions from this recipe. The only difference was that I used a dash of salt. I boiled a liter of 4.4% fat milk (which only costs ¥180) and added the juice from half a lemon (which costs ¥25). The whey looks very yellow because of the lemon juice. I used both a metal strainer and a cotton cloth to strain the curds because I didn't want the whey to be contaminated by any stray cheese particles. Since the whey will be used for ricotta and any curds that get in the whey will make hard beads in the ricotta, I felt some precautions were necessary.
I didn't squeeze the cheese as much as the paneer recipe suggests since I'm looking for cottage cheese, though I probably squeezed it more than necessary. This made for very firm curds that did not have whey separating from them as is often the case in store-bought cottage cheese.
The important question is, how did it taste? Being impatient, I tasted it while it was still fresh and moderately warm. As was mentioned in the paneer recipe, it tasted like it's components - milk and lemon juice. I needed to salt it up to make it come close to what I buy in the store (and it was much better with salt). It was missing the small bit of "bite" I associate with cottage cheese and I'm guessing that's because I used lemon instead of vinegar. Also, I used ESL (extended shelf life) milk because that's what the store had. The problem with ESL milk is that it's already been boiled into oblivion before it is purchased and it has a distinct aftertaste. In the warm, fresh cottage cheese, this aftertaste was very present. Next time, I'm going to try it with much better milk and vinegar and see how it goes.
After letting it sit overnight in the refrigerator, I broke up the curds and salted it a bit more. The lemon taste had mellowed considerably and the ESL milk aftertaste had muted a bit. It is definitely better the next day and I'm sure it will be even better yet with a different type of milk. The preferable milk is farm fresh and unpasteurized, but that's pretty much out of the question for me as I believe such milk cannot be sold in Japan.
Even if this is as good as it gets, it's certainly good enough to choose making my own cottage cheese over paying outrageous prices. I especially feel it's worthwhile if the cottage cheese is to be used in cooking or flavored in some other fashion. However, I'm still going to eat what I made as a plain main component of lunch. The final cost analysis has this method cutting the price of cottage cheese in half.
As for the other half of this process, that is, making ricotta, that was a complete failure. Despite the fact that I saved the whey and allowed it to sit overnight as instructed, it did not form curds upon reboiling. The whole kitchen smelled like cheese, but the whey never formed any foam on top (or on the bottom) as it was supposed to and I simply had to toss the liquid out. I'm going to give this another try next time I make cottage cheese because I'm blaming the ESL milk for this problem.