When I was a wee babe in my first year of college, before I had any real inkling that my life would take a sharp and serious turn towards food, I watched a video of Melissa Clark making ricotta on the New York Times' website. “Why make ricotta?” she implored the viewer—the viewer surely wondering, and rightfully so, why on earth one might spend part of their day making a cheese you can easily buy. Why? "Because," she said simply, "you can." A moment later, peppy music began playing as the camera panned over a dish of homemade ricotta so soft and light that at first I mistook the image for literal clouds.
Because I can! I was inspired. I emailed the video to my friends. I told my mom about it, who told me that my Italian great-grandmother would make ricotta out of soured milk. But even though it’s a cheese I love and eat regularly, spooned in fat balls over the top of frittatas, or spread onto toast and drizzled with honey or olive oil, or served in bowls with honey and pine nuts and fruit, I didn’t do anything about it. Until last week, I still hadn’t made ricotta.
As it turns out, it’s just as simple as Melissa Clark assured me it would be. Yes, you can buy very high-quality ricotta, but make it because you can. You need just milk and cream and a splash of acid—lemon juice or white wine vinegar. The former will give the finished cheese a subtle lemony flavor, almost floral, while the vinegar will give you a straightforward tangy cheese. Either way, use the best milk and cream you can afford, since you’ll really taste them. (One more note about the milk: Some people have trouble using milk that’s ultra-pasteurized, so use pasteurized milk—or raw if you can find it, you lucky dog—instead.)
You can make ricotta with smaller or larger curds; it’s up to you. The former will be spoonable and spreadable, while the latter will mostly stay in big curds good for scattering over a pizza before it goes into the oven or marinating in olive oil with herbs. Both are very good—even better because you made them yourself.
- Yields: Makes about 1 ½ cups of small-curd ricotta or ¾ cup large-curd ricotta
Combine the milk, cream, and salt in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir the mixture regularly, to prevent scorching the bottom of the pan, until the milk becomes steamy and frothy. You don’t want it to do much more than simmer gently.
While the milk mixture heats, set a colander in a large bowl and line the colander with a very clean dishtowel or a couple of layers of cheesecloth. The cloth should hang generously over the sides of the colander.
When the milk reaches the foamy, frothy point, add the lemon juice or vinegar. For a creamier, moister ricotta with small curds, remove the pot from the heat immediately and let it sit for about 10 minutes. If you’d prefer a drier, denser ricotta with larger curds, keep the mixture on the heat, very gently simmering, for 1 to 2 minutes. In either case, you’ll see the white curds begin to separate from the thin-looking, watery, yellowish whey.
Strain the mixture into the lined colander and let it drain until the consistency looks good to you. (If you want to eat it, it looks good!) You may feel as though a lot of liquid is draining off, and you’re right. Make sure the bottom of the colander doesn’t touch the the whey; if it does, put a fresh bowl under the colander. But don’t toss the whey! Save it for up to 3 days and use it to make bread, cake, smoothies, creamy soups, or porridge—or even cook a grain like rice or quinoa in it.
For a small-curd ricotta, the mixture may still look pretty moist when you decide to pack it into a container and stick it in the fridge, and it may take up to an hour to look that way; a larger-curd ricotta may take as little as 5 minutes. Keep in mind that the cheeses will firm up slightly in the refrigerator. Ricotta will keep for about a week in the fridge.