That's because this is and isn't ricotta cheese. You see, authentic ricotta is made by reheating and cooking the whey that results from cheesemaking. But, frankly, most of us home cooks don't have whey on hand. And it feels silly to make a batch of cheese just to make ricotta.
Of course, if you're already making homemade cheese and have whey leftover, by all means, try your hand at the traditional method. But for every other time, turn to this recipe that uses a workaround technique involving nothing more than cream, milk, and acid and some time in the oven.
To get technical, ricotta is not cheese but actually a dairy byproduct because it is recooked (or "ricotta") whey. However, in the United States, it's commonly called cheese.
Some version of ricotta dates back to Roman times and is believed to have first originated in Sicily (where it was likely made with sheep or goat milk). The Italian kitchen has long operated on the premise that you shouldn't waste any ingredient, and that mentality resulted in this "cheese."
Before we get into this homemade ricotta technique, let's go over how ricotta is traditionally made. You can read a lot in this Serious Eats article (where we first came across the ingenious oven technique we use in this recipe). But, to sum it up, ricotta came about as a way to use the watery whey that separates from the curds during cheesemaking.
If you're making it with a whey base (i.e., the traditional method), you start by heading milk to pasteurize it. Then you'd add something (traditionally cow rennet enzymes) to acidify and coagulate the mixture. Finally, you'd remove the curds and let them drain. Our homemade ricotta recipe uses a similar technique, except no whey is involved.
Unless you're fortunate enough to live near a top-quality cheese shop or deli that makes its own ricotta or sells a top-notch version like the Bellwether Farms, you're probably buying crappy ricotta. As in a rubbery, tasteless, overly-manipulated product that is unappealing.
The taste of great ricotta will be fresh, sweet, creamy, and have a pleasantly uneven texture that adds a lot. And, making homemade ricotta is pretty simple. Once you get the hang of it, you'll be able to make it regularly without too much thought.
This technique is essentially the same as that you'd use for making Farmer's Cheese, with two exceptions. First, heavy cream is added to provide richness, and, second, the mixture is cooked in the oven for about 30 minutes to give it that distinct "cooked" flavor that authentic ricotta has.
Before you get started with this recipe, make sure you have the following tools on hand (in addition to measuring cups and a spatula):
This recipe can be scaled up or down as desired.
Ricotta can be heated without melting, making it an excellent option for topping pizza, filled pasta like ravioli, as well as in classic Sicilian desserts like cannoli and cassata cake.
We use ricotta cheese in all sorts of dishes like pizza with caramelized onions and spinach, twist on Classic Caprese Salad where you use ricotta instead of burrata or buffalo milk mozzarella, appetizer such as these Gougeres Tea Sandwiches. And we love having it the traditional Italian way: for breakfast topped with seasonal fruit, honey, and some toasted nuts.
Here are a few other recipes you could make with this fresh ricotta:
Okay, now it's time to stock up your pantry with all the essential Italian ingredients, then try your hand at making this, and then share your creation with us by tagging @saltandwind and #swsociety on social!
or distilled white vinegar
Prepare The Colander: Line a colander, a fine-mesh strainer, or a large sieve with 2 to 3 layers of dampened cheesecloth and set it in a large bowl. Attach an instant-read digital thermometer to the side of a heavy-duty 7- to 8-quart ovenproof pot.
Warm The Milk and Cream: Put the milk and cream in the pot and warm it over medium heat, stirring regularly with a silicone spatula until it’s 185°F. Meanwhile, heat the oven to 185°F and arrange a rack in the middle.
Add The Lemon Juice or Vinegar: Immediately remove from the heat, stir in the salt, and then slowly drizzle the 2 tablespoons of vinegar or the fresh lemon juice over the surface of the milk mixture.
Cook The Curds: Transfer the pot to the oven and “cook” at 185°F for 20 to 25 minutes. After this time, the milk should have separated into clumps of milky white curds and thin, watery, yellow-colored whey — dip your slotted spoon into the mix to check.
If you still see a lot of un-separated milk, add another 1/2 tablespoon (as in 1 1/2 teaspoons) of lemon juice or vinegar and wait a few more minutes.
Drain The Curds: Gently ladle the big curds into the prepared colander. Carefully pour the remaining curds and the whey through the strainer. (Removing the big curds first helps keep them from splashing and making a mess as you pour.)
Let the ricotta drain until it reaches your desired consistency, 30 minutes for soft ricotta and up to 90 minutes for firmer ricotta. Refrigerate it if you let it drain for more than 45 minutes. Transfer the drained fresh ricotta to an airtight container and refrigerate. Use within 3 days.
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Photo Credit: Drained ricotta by cbradder; all other by Team Salt & Wind Travel