Ricotta is rich, milky and smooth, and best eaten as fresh as possible. It’s traditionally made using the leftover whey from cheese-making, but how do you make it at home? Food writer, Malou Herkes tests it out.
What is ricotta?
Now, before we begin. Let’s demystify what ricotta actually is. It’s not the watery, mascarpone-like stuff you find in supermarkets that’s for sure. Proper ricotta is rich, milky and smooth, and best eaten as fresh as possible. It’s a traditional Italian cheese made by reheating or ‘re-cooking’ (literally ‘ri-cotta’) the leftover whey from cheese-making. An ingenious answer to using up an ingredient that’s otherwise wasted.
Ricotta can be made from the whey from sheep’s or cow’s milk, goat or buffalo milk, and differs in texture from silky soft to firm depending on how long it’s left to drain. Firmer ricotta is best for filling pasta, while a softer cheese is delicious when spread on hot crostini. You can also buy ricotta salata, which is basically salted, aged ricotta – perfect for crumbling over salads or to use in place of feta. There are many wonderful Italian artisan producers out there. Westcombe make a light and delicate “Somerset ricotta” using the leftover whey from making their Cheddar. It’s well worth seeking out too.
How to make ricotta at home: whey versus milk
On my quest to make ricotta from a batch of whey (leftover from making mozzarella), I found that most ricotta recipes online call for whole milk. Not whey. This isn’t quite the same thing. Following this method, ricotta is made by adding acid – lemon juice or distilled white vinegar – or rennet to hot milk, which will cause the curds (milk solids) and whey (liquid particles) in the milk to separate. The curds are what will ultimately become your cheese after it’s been left to drain. Using milk rather than whey is not technically ‘ricotta’ although it’s still a lovely, milky-fresh curd cheese (similar to paneer) and can be used in much the same way as the ricotta you buy. I’ve given both options below.
If you’re looking to use up whey, then making ricotta is a good way to do so. Make sure you use fresh whey. Meaning, no more than a few hours old. If you don’t have enough whey, you could also bulk it out with fresh whole milk. You don’t need any out-of-the-ordinary equipment other than a cheesecloth or muslin, which you can find in any cookshop or haberdashery. Failing that, use a coffee filter.
How to make ricotta… from whey
Gently heat 2 litres of whey until it’s almost boiling. If you have a thermometer, it needs to be around 90ºC.
Remove the pan from the heat, cover and leave it to sit for 10 minutes. You’ll find that you probably won’t need to add acid as it already contains enough from the previous cheese-making process. You’ll see the whey begin to curdle and some of the curd rise to the top. If it doesn’t, add lemon juice, distilled white vinegar or citric acid to help the process along.
Place a sieve, lined with a cheesecloth, a piece of muslin or a coffee filter, over a bowl. Carefully ladle the curds into the sieve. Use a slotted spoon if you have one. Set aside and leave it to drain for around 1 hour for soft ricotta, or at least 6 hours for a firmer cheese. Alternatively, bunch up the edges of the cloth, tie it into a knot and hang it from your kitchen tap.
Remove the ricotta from your cheesecloth, muslin or coffee filter, season with salt and store in an airtight container. It’ll keep in the fridge for a couple of days. Even better, eat it immediately!
How to make ricotta… from milk
Heat 2 litres of whole milk in a saucepan over a medium heat until it’s steaming and little bubbles appear on the surface, stirring occasionally. Remove from the heat and slowly pour in 4 tablespoons of lemon juice (about 1 lemon) or distilled white vinegar, stirring continuously. Let it stand for 10 minutes to make sure the curds and whey have separated. If they don’t separate, try adding another tablespoon of acid. Now follow the above steps from 3 to 4.
Best recipes with ricotta cheese?
If you’ve never eaten it spread on hot toasts with a drizzle of honey, you’re missing out. Ricotta is also used to fill ravioli or to make plump, rich balls of gnudi. You can use it in all sorts of sweet desserts too, including cheesecake. My favourite is to eat it simply with a good pour of olive oil, salted anchovies, and crusty bread for mopping it all up. There’s nothing better.