Ricotta means “recooked” in Italian. It’s a fresh cheese made from cow, goat, sheep, or Italian water buffalo whey leftover from cheese making after curd gets strained out; most American ricottas are cow-based. Italian ricottas come in many varieties and some are even protected by law. Milk can be added during production or replace whey in some cases, but the recycled whey is what gives ricotta its name.
Evidence of ricotta-like dairy production dates all the way back to the Bronze Age on the Italian peninsula lasting roughly from the beginning to the end of the second millennium BCE. Fresh cheeses were made by heating acidified milk in ceramic vessels called milk boilers, and the technique adapted after the proliferation of rennet-coagulated cheeses led to plenty of leftover whey.
How do you make homemade ricotta?
To make modern ricotta, the whey and/or milk must acidify through fermentation or the addition of vinegar, lemon juice, or buttermilk. It’s then heated to just below boiling until firm curds form and can be strained from the leftover liquid.
We jumble up those steps a little here by first heating the milk and heavy cream to near boiling and then adding the acid, but the results are pretty much the same. When you make your ricotta, be sure to keep an eye on your coagulating curd. If it’s not coming together enough, you might need an extra tablespoon of vinegar or acid; fresh lemon juice will work if you have no vinegar. Remember to use your ricotta quickly once you make it, as fresh cheeses don’t last long, but don’t throw away that leftover whey! It’s a great substitute for water in homemade pizza dough and breads.
If you don’t have heavy cream on hand, don’t fret. This recipe is totally doable even without the added richness of cream.
What to do with homemade ricotta!
Ricotta’s mild flavor and creamy texture makes it a versatile powerhouse for sweet and savory dishes. Use it in or with pastas, soups, pizzas, or dips to start, but don’t be afraid to branch out to sweeter recipes like cheesecakes, cannolis, or even cheese pancakes!
My suggestion? Try your homemade ricotta first by itself or on toast. Here we have two serving suggestions with two different themes: a savory toast, with sundried tomatoes, fresh basil, and balsamic vinegar; and a sweet toast with sliced apple, cinnamon, and maple syrup.
The bread was made with whey drained from the homemade ricotta.
A note on pasteurization for homemade cheese
If you’re going to make this ricotta, don’t use ultra-pasteurized milk or heavy cream!
Ultra-pasteurized dairy, also known as UHT or ultra-high-temperature pasteurization, is when dairy is heated to 280° Fahrenheit for 2 seconds, then rapidly chilled to 39° Fahrenheit for storage. This destroys pathogens and gives the dairy product a longer shelf life, but also messes with the proteins necessary for curd formation in cheese making. The result is small, grainy curds that don’t clump together very well. Most dairy products nowadays have a label indicating if they’ve been ultra-pasteurized and it’s common among lactose-free and organic milks.
The milk or heavy cream you want is one that’s been pasteurized using HTST (high temperature/short time). It’s generally labeled as regular old “pasteurized,” and the dairy has been heated to 161° Fahrenheit for 15 seconds before chilling it to 39° Fahrenheit. If you’re still unsure what milk to use, consider doing a bit of research before picking your brand. Lots of kind folks all over the internet have experimented and made lists of what milk brands work best for cheese making.
How would you use your homemade ricotta? Let me know in a comment below and consider joining my Patreon if you’d like to support the blog!
Makes about 2 cups
2 quarts whole milk
1 cup heavy cream
1 teaspoon kosher salt
3 tablespoons distilled white vinegar
- Bring the milk, heavy cream, and salt to a boil over medium heat in a large 6-quart pot.
- As it comes to a boil, line a fine mesh sieve with 3-4 layers of cheesecloth and place over a large bowl.
- Once the dairy mixture boils (or comes to at least 200° Fahrenheit), remove it from the heat and stir in 3 tablespoons of distilled white vinegar. Stir gently for 30 seconds to help separate the curds and whey, then let the milk mixture sit for 5-10 minutes. If there is still unseparated milk, add 1 tablespoon more of distilled white vinegar and wait another minute or two.
- Using a slotted spoon, move the bigger curds to the cheesecloth covered sieve. Pour the rest of the whey and curds into the sieve to strain, then leave them to drain for at least 20 minutes or up to 12 hours depending on desired spreadability and texture*. Finished ricotta can be stored in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a week.
*To make a firmer farmer’s cheese like ricotta salata, wrap the ricotta in cheesecloth and press it under a weighted plate overnight in the refrigerator.