Homemade ricotta had been on my “to do” list for awhile. Not a big deal: three ingredients and maybe 10 minutes of active attention. So I can’t explain why I didn’t get around to it. But one fine afternoon…ricotta making rose to the top of the list.
Ricotta means “recooked” and for a cheese maker, is a thrifty way of capturing remaining nutrients in whey, a byproduct of the process for more celebrated cheeses such as Parmigiano Reggiano. Whey isn’t exactly a supermarket staple, so homemade ricotta is usually made from milk and sometimes, for extra richness, with cream. Instead of calling for rennet or a cheese culture, ricotta is formed by adding an acid, usually white vinegar or citric acid, to the heated liquid. Curds are separated from the whey, draining through cheesecloth to make the soft cheese.
How-tos are not to be found in the works of Pellegrino Artusi, the so-called “father of Italian cooking” or in a sampling the several hundred Italian cookbooks on my shelves. These sources assume that ricotta is a purchased ingredient unless you happen to own a cow or ewe.
Instead, I found advice by diving into Internet adventures of cheese making enthusiasts–some chefs or professional cheese makers but mostly hobbyists. Invariably they rave about the ease of making ricotta and urge the rest of us to get going. But even before heading for the kitchen, I picked up a pattern from the troubleshooting hints and reader comments. It seems that sometimes quantities of fluffy ricotta rise magically to the top of the hot milk, and sometimes they do not. The fact is that milk can behave in a temperamental way, presenting challenges even for a simple cheese such as ricotta.
For instance, it makes sense that you’d want to start with the best possible milk–perhaps your favorite organic brand. In my case that’s Organic Valley. But organic milk is typically ultra pasteurized and, uh oh, often doesn’t curdle properly. Ditto for heavy cream.
A second issue: The amount of acid needed to maximize curdling can vary. I discovered this on my first test, which happened to be with raw goat milk. The milk failed to curdle and, hesitant to add more vinegar for fear of creating an off taste, I discarded it.
Next I did several batches using pasteurized whole milk. These were my most successful, especially after I learned a trick for maximizing the quantity of ricotta formed. According to a cheesemaker’s site, keep adding vinegar until the liquid stops looking milky and becomes a watery whey with floating islands of curd. After straining the cheese, stir in a little baking soda to neutalize the acid and eliminate any off flavors. It sounded too chem lab to be true, but I have to say it works.
My last batch was made with the same brand of pasteurized milk, to which I added a little cream. That mixture failed to curdle no matter how vinegar I added–which seemed to confirm the idea that ultra-pasteurized dairy products don’t take well to ricotta making.
After coming home, my husband was treated to a blind tasting of three ricotta samples. Two were ones I had made. They were received kindly but the winner was the third, which he described as “creamy and mild, with a nice milky finish.”
It came not from our kitchen but from Mazzaro’s, a local Italian specialty market.
So my personal answer to “Worth the trouble to make ricotta at home?” is no–although I do want to try goat milk one more time–because I have a good source of freshly made ricotta. If your only choice is a supermarket brand, bland tasting and laced with stabilizers, give homemade ricotta a try. I suggest you do it in small batches (say, two cups of milk) until you get the results you’re going for. Then ramp up to as much as 1 gallon of milk at a time.
There are a zillion things to do with good ricotta–I use it to make spinach-ricotta gnocchi, baked ricotta (a Sicilian dish), a layered zucchini casserole and, for dessert, a ricotta tart or fried ricotta fritters drizzled with honey. Whether you’ve made ricotta or bought it, be sure to eat some in a simple way. Spread it on crostini, finishing with sea salt, pepper and a drizzle of olive oil. Or place a generous dollop on pasta dressed with a fresh tomato sauce. The flavor is pure, comforting and always welcome in my kitchen.
Makes 1 cup (more if you’re lucky)
1 quart whole milk (pasteurized, NOT ultra pasteurized)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt
1 to 2 tablespoons vinegar, or more
1/2 teaspoon baking soda (optional)
1. Suspend a medium strainer over a bowl. Line it with a double layer of cheesecloth or paper towels.
2. Over medium-low heat, bring the milk and salt to a gentle simmer in a medium saucepan. Add vinegar and stir once or twice. Cook for 1 to 2 minutes, and remove from the heat. Let rest for 10 minutes.
3. Scoop off curds with a skimmer and place in the strainer. If the liquid in the pan looks milky, reheat it gently and drizzle in vinegar until more curds form and the liquid turns a translucent yellow-green color. Transfer curds to the strainer (or pour mixture into the strainer).
4. When curds have drained to a consistency you like, spoon into a bowl. Taste and, if you have added extra vinegar or detect a sour flavor, stir in the baking soda. Refrigerate and use within three days.