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ingredients and techniques

Building a better pantry: ricotta

meg's picture


If you thought butter was easy, whoa, Nelly! Ricotta is like...breathing. It's like...walking. It's like...ricotta.

Ricotta is a vastly underappreciated cheese. I mean, how often have you stood in front of the cheese counter, before all those luscious, smelly, oozing beauties and said, "I think I want ricotta tonight"?

Was "never" your answer? Well, it certainly was mine.

Ricotta is better known as "that cheese that goes in lasagna." Or maybe you stuff pasta shells with it. But basically, ricotta isn't something you just want to stick a spoon in and start munching. It pretty much has no flavor, right?

Well, I hate to be the one to burst that bubble, but you've been fooled. The stuff they sell in 16 ounce containers at the grocery store? Tasteless, nearly textureless gunk. And considering how EASY ricotta is, there's no reason you should settle for that.

Of course, as with all cheesemaking, you start out with a gallon of milk and wind up with a cup or two of cheese. If you use cream or part cream, you'll have a higher yield, but the fact is, you need a lot of milk to make a little cheese.

Having said that, you will be utterly wowed at what real ricotta tastes like. It's a little sweet, very slightly floral, and, if you use lemon juice as your coagulant, it will be pleasantly lemony and tart. It's ricotta that you can just eat by itself. I often eat it as dessert with a little fruit and chocolate. You can use it in recipes--lasagna, shells, ricotta pancakes--but you may not want to. It's that good.

When I was working as a cheese maker's apprentice, we made ricotta every once in a while. We made it with whey leftover from big cheese makes, and the reason we didn't make it more than "once in a while" was because it just took the day over the top. From a reasonable (or at least bearable) amount of work to a very unreasonable and excessive amount of work. After a good nine hours or longer of making whatever it was we were making, having to fill buckets with whey, transfer it to the pasteurizer, heat it to 180 degrees, and collect maybe five to ten pounds of ricotta from the scalding hot was, more often than not, just too much.

But at home, ricotta isn't nearly as dramatic, and if you'll allow me to say it again, it's easy.

For this recipe, you can use a variety of dairy products. If you're very ambitious, you might want to use the whey left over from another cheesemaking project. You can also just use whole milk or whole milk enriched with cream. The higher the fat content, the higher the yield and the richer the final product.

I'm writing this recipe as if you're using a gallon of whole milk, but the principal is the same no matter what dairy you use. The yield, however, may be larger or smaller.

Makes 1 1/2 to 2 pounds
 Combine in a large pot:
     1 gallon whole milk
     1 teaspoon salt (use kosher, canning and pickling salt, or sea salt)
Heat the milk to 190°F, stirring often to prevent scorching. Add, stirring once and only once:
     1/4 cup lemon juice or 1 teaspoon citric acid dissolved in 1/4 cup cold water
Remove from the heat and let sit, undisturbed, for 15 to 30 minutes. Don't touch it. You can observe the curds and whey separating--it's pretty cool to watch.
Using a fine mesh sieve or butter muslin (or several layers of cheesecloth), strain the curds. Use a ladle to transfer the curds to the sieve. Allow the cheese to drain for about 30 minutes, or until the desired consistency is reached.
The cheese is ready to be eaten immediately if you like. Store, refrigerated for up to one week.


David Howie's picture

Hi there , was just reading over your ricotta recipe and i have a there anything you can do with the liquid that is left over?....please advise, thanks

meg's picture

Hi David. There are a few things you can do with it. Chickens love the stuff (as do pigs), but if you don't have livestock (and most of us don't!), you can use it when making bread instead of water (whey has a high protein content and adds lots of extra nutrients), for boiling potatoes or pasta in, or you can drink it! Just add some fruit juice and honey to taste, and you have a very nutritious drink on your hands.

Lara Allasia's picture

I live in Mexico, and there are NO lemons here.... will this work with limes as well?

meg's picture

Sure! Limes are fine, and you can use vinegar as we'll.

Denise di Salvo's picture

My family was Italian, & when I was growing up we always ate fresh ricotta spread on Italian or sourdough bread. Usually the moment we got back from the store, as this was a treat no one could wait for.

meg's picture

Fresh ricotta is so, so lovely. Nothing like the nearly flavorless store-bought stuff. I love eating fresh ricotta with honey and toasted walnuts.

Aaron's picture

You don't say so in the recipe, but I think the lemon juice must be fresh. I made it with lemon juice from concentrate (the kind that comes in a bottle), and the batch was a dismal failure. There was some curdling, but I mostly ended up with a lot of milk.

meg's picture

Sorry your ricotta didn't turn out! But you can actually use bottled lemon juice. I've done it with great success many times. I find that sometimes it takes a while for the curds to precipitate out, so I'll add the lemon juice or vinegar, stir a little, then walk away for 15 minutes (turn the heat off). If I stand and watch it it drives me crazy. If it still doesn't separate into curds and whey, I've brought the temp back up again, added more acid, and waited a bit longer. This usually does the trick.

Aaron's picture

Fortunately I still have the whole batch in the fridge (I was so frustrated that I considered just throwing it all out). I'll give reheating and adding more acid a try. Thanks for the pointer!

meg's picture

I hope it works this time! I don't know how heating, cooling, and reheating the milk will work (my guess is that some of the proteins in the milk are denatured in the heating process), but it's worth a shot. Believe me, I know how frustrating a failure like this can be. I don't always have epic successes in the kitchen by any means. But it's all a learning process. Best of luck!

Aaron's picture

Meg, it worked this time. I had to add another 1/2 cup of lemon juice, but the curdling was quite obvious and nearly instantaneous once I did. I forgot to mention before, but I fortified the milk with a pint of cream in order to increase the cheese yield. I suppose the increased amount of stuff coupled with the potentially weakened acidity of the bottled lemon juice resulted in the first batch not curdling. Now I know what to expect in the future!

I would be interested in trying it again to see if getting it right the first time is better than the reheated stuff I made this time.

Thanks again.

meg's picture

Great! So glad it worked out. It really is a variable process--some lemons are more acidic than others, and bottled lemon juice may or may not be as acidic as a "normal" lemon. And yes, adding the cream probably did affect how much acid was needed. But I'm glad you persevered. Try your fresh ricotta on crostini with some salt, pepper, and good evoo. I think it's pretty outstanding, anyway.

Leigh's picture

This is interesting, because it's exactly how paneer is made. Only difference is after the curds form, you strain in a cloth under pressure to form a firm cake.

meg's picture

Yes! It's pretty much the same process. Traditionally, ricotta is made from whey--a way to get the most value out of milk by re-cooking the whey after cheesemaking and inducing the remaining milk proteins to precipitate out. The only difference with paneer is that it is made with whole milk. Of course, you can make ricotta with whole milk to get a higher yield, but it is traditionally made with whey. Thanks for stopping by!

Marie Whit's picture

Is there a way to improve store-bought ricotta? I already bought some (thinking it would taste like what I've had at restaurants) and was disappointed to find how tasteless it was. Would adding salt, lemon juice, or something else help at all?

meg's picture

Sure! You can improve store-bought ricotta by adding any of the things you mentioned. You can also add a little heavy cream to make the texture silkier. Just add lemon juice and salt to taste.

Arlene's picture

Is there any way to make this non-dairy - with coconut or almond milk for instance? My husband can't eat dairy but we both love dishes made with cheese. And the vegan options in the market are awful!

john's picture

There are some recipes floating around online, but most of them are just ground-up almonds and almond milk... definitely another awful excuse for cheese. Sorry Arlene!

Lee Ann Yette's picture

I have been making ricotta cheese for a couple of years now and will not go back to store bought. It's just too easy to make to stoop to the store bought crud. I do have to give you an added bonus when making ricotta. Have you ever heard of Farmer's Cheese? It's a wonderful "ricotta" cheese that has been drained a little longer in the cheese cloth, basically dried in the refrigerator. But before you retreat it to dry, add some salt and other herbs that you like and then dry it. All you really need to do is when you put it in your container, put a piece of paper towel on the bottom and a piece on top of your cheese and change it each morning for about 3 or 4 days. You will have a nice spreadable cheese similar to goat cheese but without the tang. It's ricotta bumped up several notches.

john's picture

Nice Lee Ann! We have definitely heard of farmer's cheese but haven't taken the extra step yet. Can't wait to try!

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