My earliest memories of ricotta, that soft, slightly sweet Italian cheese, come from the stuffed shells at my favorite childhood restaurant in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, hilariously named La Pizza. I loved cutting into the tomato-sauce-covered pasta to reveal the creamy cheese inside. Years later, in Sicily, I tried freshly made ricotta that was so good, I wanted to eat it by the spoonful. It was light and lovely with soft—not grainy—curds revealing the tiniest bit of tang.
Get the recipe:Fresh Homemade Ricotta
I came back to the states dreaming of making my own fresh ricotta. I found a recipe for it in the cookbook Cucina Fresca by Evan Kleinman and Viana La Place. Turns out making ricotta at home requires little more than stirring lemon juice into simmering milk. The acid causes curds to form, and then it’s simply a matter of draining away the excess liquid. Of course, that doesn’t mean I got it right my first time. I decided to make a huge batch on that first attempt, and when I went to drain it in the giant colander I set in the sink, all of it went right down the drain with nary a curd to show for my work. A few batches later, I had learned to ladle the curds slowly and gently into a cheesecloth-lined colander. Now I regularly make my own delicious ricotta, and you can, too.
There are other acids you can use to make ricotta, including vinegar and buttermilk, and there are fans of all three. Some prefer vinegar because the acid level stays constant. Some like the tang that buttermilk imparts. I use freshly squeezed lemon juice because I love the subtle perfume the lemon adds. The slight differences in one lemon’s acidity versus another’s can have an influence on the size and quantity of curds, but I think that part of what’s charming about handmade food is those slight differences from batch to batch.
Draining time determines the ricotta’s firmness. Cheese that drains for a short time will be softer and more spreadable than cheese that drains longer. I like a softer cheese when I’m eating it on bread (see below) and for recipes like the spinach gnocchi and baked shells that follow. For the Chocolate-Orange Cannoli Cheesecake, however, it’s best to drain the cheese well to firm it up a bit.
In their book, Viana and Evan recommend serving fresh ricotta just as it cools for the freshest flavor. I totally agree. Even if I’m planning to refrigerate my ricotta to use later, I just have to sneak a taste. Make it yourself, and you’ll see what I mean. Just be sure to have a spoon handy.
Making ricotta always feels a little magical. One minute you’ve got milk in a pot; the next it’s filled with creamy curds. When the curds first start to form, you may want to stir the pot vigorously to create even more, but it’s better to stir gently to develop nice, soft curds.
When it’s time to strain the cheese, don’t just pour it into a colander, or you’ll risk it going down the drain, as happened to me all those years ago. Instead, ladle the curds onto cheesecloth. The process doesn’t take long, and the supple cheese that results is so tasty you may never buy ricotta again.
How to Make Fresh Ricotta
Get the recipes
Photographs by Scott Phillips; pork chop photo by Dina Avila; cheesecake photo by Romulo Yanes
Fresh ricotta + bread = heaven
One of the best ways to enjoy freshly made ricotta is on a thick slice of good bread drizzled with olive oil. It’s also delicious with some of the following ricotta-loving toppings.
• Chopped salted Marcona almonds with fig wedges.
• Apricot or rhubarb compote with baby or chopped fresh mint (left).
• Fresh oregano, capers, olive oil, and black pepper.
• Grape tomatoes roasted with rosemary plus a sprinkle of flaky sea salt (middle).
• Prosciutto and arugula that’s lightly dressed with olive oil and sea salt (right).