Call me Little Miss Muffet — I’ve been enjoying curds and whey since my sister advocated for homemade ricotta during a recent visit.
She said, “You will never buy the grocery store version again. It’s the easiest thing to make, and it is so much better.” She was right.
I have since become mildly obsessed with the preparation, and after one semi-disastrous false start, have mastered the process. I researched the method and discovered one important lesson — you must use regular, standard pasteurized, nonorganic, nonraw milk and/or cream. Do not use ultra-pasteurized.
I don’t know the science behind it, but organic dairy is often ultra-pasteurized, as is somestandard dairy, which prevents it from forming curds, as I learned the hard way. But more on that later.
According to my research, raw milk also does not form curds as desired for optimal ricotta, although I have not learned that from experience.
The basic recipe below can be tweaked according to personal preference.
More cream delivers a creamier texture, but the cheese can be made with whole milk for a lighter version. The choice of acid is also variable; lemon adds a burst of freshness and a touch of sweetness, which I liked across the board, but some may prefer that only for desserts. White vinegar can be used instead of lemon, and that delivers a more neutral flavor suited to savory dishes. The amount of salt can vary from a teaspoon to a tablespoon; I’m a salty girl, so I lean toward the heavier dose, even for desserts.
And then there’s the whey; this is the byproduct of the cheese — essentially what drips out of the sieve when the curds remain. Don’t toss it; whey contains many micronutrients, which include essential minerals such as potassium, calcium, phosphorous and zinc. It also delivers digestive enzymes, milk proteins and peptides. Finally, it is a useful ingredient in any recipe that calls for water — soups, smoothies, sauces, baked goods and as the cooking liquid for vegetables or grains such as oats, groats, rice or barley.
The first time I attempted ricotta, I carefully bought regular, nonorganic, standard pasteurized milk at the grocery store, and I planned to use the heavy cream I had in the fridge leftover from a previous recipe.
Unfortunately, I neglected to check the pasteurization status of said cream and it was the ultra variety. I began the process of heating the ingredients and, when I added the lemon juice, the curds failed to materialize. It was then I checked the label of the cream and found the culprit. I panicked for a minute; I had dinner guests arriving in 30 minutes and had planned to serve fresh ricotta lightly sweetened with honey and garnished with fresh fruit and toasted almonds for dessert.
At that point, all I had was a huge vat of hot, salted cream-milk that contained ¼ cup of lemon juice. The good news was I was pretty sure I could turn this failure into a delicious butterscotch pudding; that was indeed the case. So, lemons out of lemonade. And the next time, I made darn sure to check all the labels.
Homemade Ricotta Cheese
This preparation makes about 2 cups of ricotta and a little more than a quart of whey, depending on how long you drain the cheese. The longer it drains, the drier and firmer the cheese will be; if you pour it through the cheese cloth and remove it immediately, the
results will be soft and creamy.
It keeps in the refrigerator for several days and seems to “tighten up” during that time, but you can add some whey to loosen the texture later.
The safest way to ensure a correct temperature of 185-200 degrees is to use a candy thermometer. If you don’t have one, you can eyeball it; as the milk begins to form a skin on the top and bubbles around the edges, it is done. This is just short of boiling and takes about 20 minutes over medium heat to reach this temperature.
You will also need cheesecloth to strain the cheese; this is available at many grocery stores and kitchen stores or can be ordered online. A quadruple thickness is ideal, and it is best to line the sieve thoroughly to avoid bits of the liquid overflowing and sneaking out of the cheesecloth and wasting the precious cheese.
½ gallon whole, pasteurized (not ultra-pasteurized) milk or 6 cups milk and 2 cups heavy cream
¼ cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice or white vinegar
1 teaspoon to 1 tablespoon salt, depending on preference and intended use
In a large stockpot, gradually heat the milk/cream over medium heat to 185-200 degrees.
Small bubbles will form around the rim and a skin will begin to form on the surface. Do not boil.
Remove it from the heat, add salt and lemon juice/vinegar, stir briefly, then cover and let it sit for 10 minutes.
While the cheese sits, line a large sieve with a quadruple thickness of lightly dampened cheesecloth and set it over a bowl. Do not have the sieve sitting inside the bowl or the cheese will not drain.
Stir the milk mixture and see the curds starting to form.
Carefully ladle or pour the mixture slowly through the cheesecloth and allow it to drain. This takes between 6-10 minutes or longer if a drier, firmer cheese is preferred.
Use as desired; refrigerate leftovers in a sealed container for several days.
Ways to use fresh ricotta:
• Scoop dollops of it onto tomato salad drizzled with aged balsamic.
• Slather it on toast with anything from jam to hot sauce.
• Whip it with honey or confectioners’ sugar and serve it for dessert.
• Scoop it into a half melon or peach for a
deliciously fresh snack or treat.
• Use it to top pizza or pasta.
• Eat it with a spoon. WJW
Keri White is a Philadelphia-based food writer.