Homemade ricotta cheese

Since I returned from southern Italy in February, I’ve longed for really good ricotta cheese.  The supermarket stuff simply doesn’t compare to the ultra-fresh, velvety ricotta made from the whey left over from buffalo-milk mozzarella production.  All over Campania, stellar ricotta appears in cakes, tucked inside ravioli, spread atop pizzas: it is ubiquitous and delicious.  I quickly found a favorite way to eat it for breakfast:  with honey, slathered on thick-sliced bread, with a little bit of proscuitto or coppa on the side (see right; the ricotta is nestled in its own little plastic cheese-mold).  Beats the hell out of strawberry Pop-Tarts, doesn’t it?

Alas, I can’t seem to get my hands on any top-quality ricotta here at home.  Blog poster Candice suggested months ago that I try making it myself (here’s the record of her ricotta efforts), and I recently saw a ricotta recipe in Emeril’s new From Farm to Table cookbook.  So I finally took the plunge into cheesemaking.  (Note to self:  what in the hell took so long?)

Recipes for ricotta litter the web; it’s not a complicated or drawn-out endeavor.  Here’s the process in a nutshell:

  • Heat 1/2 gallon Smith’s Creamery milk to 180 degrees in a non-reactive pan.  (Add a little heavy cream for a richer end product.)
  • Add a souring agent (vinegar, lemon juice, citric acid–what Emeril’s cookbook calls for–or tartaric acid will work).  I used vinegar.
  • Add 1/4 tsp salt.
  • Stir once or twice, and wait for curds to form.
  • Gently ladle curds into a cheesecloth-lined colander.
  • Allow curds to drain about 2 hours.
  • Transfer ricotta into an airtight container and store in refrigerator.

So I did exactly as described above, and it was awful.  Dump-in-the-trash awful.  Apologize to the Smiths’ hardworking cows awful.  The curds were beyond rubbery–they were downright tough.  Unpleasantly chewy, more reminescent of rubber bands than soft, melting cheese.  I don’t know if the vinegar was a bad choice, if I used too much, or if I stirred too long.  Blech.  The plastic tubs of Polly-O at Wal-Mart tasted better than my experimental cheese.

Live and learn.  I won’t be rushing off to any more  cheese experiments until I can do a bit more research on texture.  I need to figure out why I ended up with recycled tire shreds instead of velvety goodness.  Until then, it’s storebought for me.  I’ll stick to homebaked bread, and leave the cheesemaking to experts.

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18 thoughts on “Homemade ricotta cheese

  1. Here you go Celeste:
    Try again-
    From my experience- your milk got too hot too fast and you cooked it too long.
    Use lemon instead of vinegar and use a little more than the recipe calls for..
    Use less quick heat and more slow low heat longer to make it less rubbery..
    Smiths is delicious, but I use Mauthe’s for making cheese.
    Watch the use of heavy cream as many add Carrageenan – Seaweed- which I have found-changes the texture..
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Carrageenan
    get pure cream if you use it- or don’t use it at all ( I don’t use it unless it is winter time.. spring and summer milk has great flavor winter milk needs a bit more cream..) Give it another try and let me know how it goes.
    or try another type of milk for fun-
    Goat milk is great for making fresh ricotta!

    • Thanks ever so much for the tips…I’ll try lemon next time, and I’ll even try to find some pure citric acid, too. Slow and low, hmmm….that was probably my main problem, heating it too fast. I didn’t get it too hot (used a thermometer), but I probably got it hot too fast. I don’t have a farm-fresh goat milk source on the south shore, sadly.

  2. The goat’s milk ricotta sold at the farmers or hollygrove market is pretty good.

    I have been trying to recreate a smoked ricotta that was part of a pasta dish we had in Rome for the past year. I’ve more or less given up on it.

    • Smoked ricotta sounds divine…where in Rome did you enjoy such a treat? I’m always looking for another good spot in Rome.

      • The place was called “Antonio’s” and is right by the Pantheon, around the corner from the Tazza D’oro coffee shop. It was so good we ended up there twice. The dish was papardelle, smoked ricotta, and lardons made with the fat of umbria ham. Unforgettable. They also had excellent fried artichokes.

  3. My advice is to actually make some kind of cheese first (Ricki Carroll’s 30 minute mozzarella is an easy choice) and then actually make your ricotta from the whey. I’ve literally never made a bad batch of ricotta from whey, even if the main event cheese itself didn’t turn out so great.

    I honestly don’t think that the speed of milk heating would have resulted in a tough curd like you got. I heat the whey up pretty quickly after getting most of the curd out to make my other cheese. Being careful about the temp is important for the first round of cheesemaking, but making ricotta from whey has been very forgiving in my experience.

    So, my process is that I remove most of the curd and make (or start making) my first cheese, then I put the whey back on mid-high heat. I do add a cup or so more cream or milk, because otherwise it’s a pretty low-yield recipe and adding more fat makes it more worth it. I mix in apple cider vinegar, which I’ve never had trouble with, stir, take it off the heat and let it sit for 5 or 10 minutes, then pour it into a colander lined with butter muslin over another large pot so as not to lose the excess whey (once it cools, feed it to your animals, mix it in a smoothie, or water your garden with it – whey is good for living things).

    My other piece of advice is just to keep on experimenting. I’ve never found a recipe for cheese that didn’t require some tweaking – most often it’s in the amount of rennet called for. Too much rennet does yield a tough, gross curd, but too little and the curd won’t form at all so you just have to keep trying!

    You can probably tell that home cheesemaking is one of my main hobbies. I would be happy to talk more about it with you if you’re interested!

    • I do need a remedial cheesemaking course. The multiple recipes I consulted prior to attempting ricotta made it seem extremely easy, and my sub-par results indicate that some important variable wasn’t covered in said recipes.

    • Becky- you are so right! Roses love whey for the calcium… I use it instead of bone meal, which can attract pests- and my geese and cats regularly have standoffs for the whey…http://dasblauhaus.blogspot.com/2009/07/country-standoff-for-whey.html
      But I have found that temperature and cooking time do make a big difference in texture…
      As hot as it is today, if I put milk in pan outside anywhere in SE Louisiana right now and added some lemon juice or vinegar- I would bet that by this afternoon the curds and whey would be separated. Along with my “Sun tea”, I might have “Sun Cheese!” Talk about a specialty cheese…

      • I am dubious about the marketing potential of “sun cheese”…eww is the first thing that comes to mind! Y’all are inspiring me to make another attempt at ricotta.

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