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What Is Ricotta Cheese?
True Italian ricotta is a fresh, soft, white cheese made from milk and leftover whey—the watery part of milk that’s separated from the curds during cheese making. Rather than throw away this nutritious milk-water, Italian cheesemakers developed ricotta by heating whey near a boil, which caused it to coagulate and form a soft cheese.
How to Make Whey
Here’s a very basic introduction to cheesemaking as well as whey production:
- Milk is pasteurized, and then cooled.
- Then, a starter bacteria and rennet enzymes are added to the milk, causing it to acidify and coagulate.
- Milk solids called curds form and are eventually cut, or separated from the watery part of milk (the whey).
- The curds are then made into a variety of cheeses including mozzarella, Camembert, blue cheese, Gouda, cheddar, and parmesan.
- The leftover whey looks like cloudy water but is rich in lactose, minerals, and vitamins. This whey can be used for making more cheese, or as a supplement to other foods.
Unless you happen to have whey leftover from other cheesemaking projects (impressive!) it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to dive into traditional-style ricotta making. Luckily, there’s another way to make fluffy, ricotta-like cheese at home.
The 3 Basic Ingredients of Ricotta-Style Cheeses
Homemade fresh ricotta is only three ingredients away:
- Whole milk is the basis of this cheese. Avoid ultra-pasteurized milk, which does not curdle properly. (You can use low fat milk, but the resulting cheese won’t taste as rich as whole milk ricotta.)
- Citric acid makes the milk curdle. You can also use lemon juice or white vinegar, but citric acid has a more subtle flavor and will produce the best ricotta. You can buy citric acid online.
- Heavy cream is added at the end of the process to make the curds creamy. This yields a texture more like ricotta than farmer’s cheese (which is actually what we’re making in this process).
Tips for Making the Perfect Ricotta-Style Cheese
While making homemade ricotta-style cheese requires few ingredients, consider the following tips to perfect your technique:
- The longer you drain your ricotta, the thicker the texture will be.
- If you add too much heavy cream, the ricotta will get weighed down and won’t be as fluffy.
- Since ricotta cheese goes bad quickly, only make the quantity you’ll actually use within the next couple of days. If you need to scale up this recipe, one gallon of milk will yield about one pound of cheese.
Don’t throw away the whey leftover from making this cheese. It’s full of good bacteria that can help jump-start fermentation projects. You can add a little to soaking liquid for whole grains; add it to smoothies; use it to marinate meats; or, hey, try making traditional Italian ricotta!
5 Recipes With Homemade Ricotta Cheese
- Ricotta and toast go together like peanut butter and jelly. Top toast with ricotta cheese and smashed peas. Garnish with mint leaves, lemon juice, olive oil, and salt. Spread ricotta on toast and top with a drizzle of honey. Or brush brioche slices with melted butter and toast in a large skillet over medium-high heat until golden brown. Spoon ricotta cheese on each piece of toast, spreading so that the edges are taller than the center. Pour your favorite jam into the center and sprinkle with flaky salt.
- Lemon ricotta pancakes: Adding fresh ricotta cheese to pancake batter yields super-fluffy hotcakes, while lemon zest plays up the acidity of the cheese.
- Gnudi (ricotta gnocchi) is an Italian pasta that looks and tastes like extra-fluffy gnocchi, but it’s made with ricotta cheese instead of potatoes.
- Take your favorite lasagna recipe to the next level by subbing grocery-store ricotta with this homemade ricotta cheese recipe.
- Use fresh ricotta to make no-churn ricotta ice cream: Blend the cheese with milk and sugar and then freeze in an airtight container.
Easy Homemade Ricotta-Style Cheese
Prep Time15 min
Total Time50 min
- Scant ½ teaspoon citric acid (or ¼ cup fresh-squeezed lemon juice)
- 4 cups whole milk
- ¾ cup heavy cream
- Place the citric acid in a small bowl and add a splash of hot (not boiling) water. Stir until the citric acid is completely dissolved. (Skip this step if using lemon juice.)
- Pour the milk into a large nonreactive pot over low heat, stirring occasionally with a rubber spatula, until the milk starts to steam and becomes frothy at the edges of the pot (180°F).
- Remove from heat and stir in the citric acid solution (or lemon juice), starting with just a little of the acid. Continue to add acid until the milk curdles. Let rest until the pot is cool enough to touch, about 15 minutes.
- Nestle a fine mesh sieve or cheesecloth-lined colander in a large bowl. Pour in the curdled milk and let drain until ricotta has reached its desired consistency, about 20-30 minutes. The liquid that accumulates at the bottom of the bowl is the whey.
- Transfer ricotta to a medium bowl and gently fold in the cream, starting with a little splash and adding as much as needed to reach your desired consistency. You want creamy ricotta, thick but not chunky.