Ricotta is one of the world’s favorite cooking cheeses, and for a good reason. Creamy, milky, and mild, it can easily blend into just about any dish adding richness and depth, or served simply with sweet or savory condiments as a breakfast, appetizer, or dessert. What is ricotta cheese, and what are the best ways to cook with it? Is all ricotta cheese created equal? Can I make ricotta cheese at home? (spoiler alert, yes!) Read on for great ricotta info, and a handy homemade ricotta cheese recipe!
Ricotta cheese can be made from any type of milk – cow, goat, sheep, or even water buffalo. In America, cow’s milk ricotta is the most ubiquitous. In Italy, depending on the region, ricotta is made from cow’s milk, sheep milk, or a mixture of both. There are two main varieties of ricotta – whey-based ricotta, and whole milk ricotta.
Whey-Based Ricotta Cheese:
This is the ‘true’ definition of ricotta. In Italian, the word ‘ricotta’ means to ‘re-cook’. Traditionally ricotta was made from re-cooking the whey after cheesemaking to eke more solid curd from the protein rich whey. By heating the whey, the proteins solidify, rise to the top, and are skimmed off by the cheesemaker. There are two main types of protein in milk – casein and albumen. Casein is the protein most associated with cheese. Most of the casein comes out during the initial cheesemaking process, leaving mostly albumen (yes, the same protein found in eggs) in the whey. As a result, whey-based ricotta is lighter and more custardy in texture – a totally different and delicious beast than what’s available in most supermarkets.
Whey-based ricotta can be whipped with sugar and baked to make a traditional Sicilian-style cheesecake, served ‘infornata’, or baked in the oven (it will hold its shape and brown on the outside) added to your meatball mixture it the place of eggs, or simply drizzled with honey or topped with fresh berries.
Whole Milk Ricotta Cheese:
99.9% of all ricotta cheese sold in the United States is made from whole milk. This type of ricotta also undergoes a cooking process, but would be more rightly called ‘cotta’ (Italian for cooked) because the milk is only cooked one time. To make whole milk ricotta, you simply heat whole milk to near boiling, add an acidifier (lemon juice or vinegar are the most common) wait for the curds to rise, skim them off into a colander lined with cheesecloth, and presto! Whole milk ricotta is creamier and more rich, and has a looser, wetter texture than whey-based ricotta.
Whole milk ricotta is an essential part of any lasagna worth it’s salt, makes a delicious appetizer when drizzled with good olive oil, salt and pepper and served with good bread, and is lovely when mixed into pancake batter with lemon zest.
Anne Saxelby’s Fresh Ricotta
Excerpt from ‘The New Rules of Cheese’ – available for sale in October from Ten Speed Press. Pre-order today!
Fresh ricotta is definitely one of the easiest, and most instantly gratifying, cheeses to make. All you need is milk, lemon juice, salt, and some cheesecloth (which you can buy at most grocery stores). When shopping for this recipe, seek out the highest-quality milk and cream you can find—ideally, a fresh batch from a local farm. If you can find it, use non-homogenized milk or milk that has not been ultra pasteurized.
Makes 4 cups
1 gallon whole milk
2 cups heavy cream
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
3/4 cup fresh lemon juice (from about 4 lemons)
Pour the milk, cream, and salt into a large stainless steel or ceramic pot. Turn the heat to medium-high and bring the milk to 190°F. Stir often to keep the milk from scorching.
Once the milk reaches temperature, turn off the heat and add the lemon juice. Stir slowly until curds and whey—clumps of cheese and a semi-clear yellowish liquid—begin to form. This should happen almost immediately. Remove the pot from the heat and let the pot of curds rest for 5 minutes.
Line a colander with cheesecloth and place it over a large bowl. Pour the curds and whey into the colander and let the curds drain for at least 1 hour. Reserve the whey (the liquid collected at the bottom of the bowl) for poaching vegetables or adding to cold, tangy soups like borscht or cucumber soup.
Fresh ricotta is best consumed warm and as fresh as possible but will keep in an airtight container in the refrigerator for 3 to 4 days. I like to drizzle it with either good olive oil or honey and flaky sea salt (depending on whether I’m feeling savory or sweet) and serve schmeared atop good bread.