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.
How to Make Fresh Ricotta
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
A thermometer is helpful but not
crucial. The milk is hot enough when
bubbles form near the edge of the pan.
Slowly pouring the juice over
the surface encourages curds
to form more evenly.
The mixture needs just a gentle stir to
create creamy curds.
Cheesecloth is key for keeping smaller
curds from being lost through the
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
with baby or
• Fresh oregano,
oil, and black
• Grape tomatoes
plus a sprinkle
of flaky sea salt
• Prosciutto and
with olive oil
and sea salt