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Say Cheese: Homemade Ricotta, in 45 Minutes

Ricotta adventures, top left and right: Good-quality, organic milk and buttermilk are best for making homemade ricotta; fluffy ricotta curds drain in a colander lined with several layers of damp cheesecloth. At bottom left and right: All the ingredients for stuffed baked ricotta -- mushrooms, spinach, prosciutto, Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese -- are combined with freshly made ricotta cheese; the eggy version of the dish, just out of the oven. Keep reading to get the recipes. (Domenica Marchetti)

I had hoped that by eating a lot of ricotta during my recent trip to Italy, I would satisfy my craving for this sweet, fresh cheese and maybe even get a little tired of it. I certainly ate more than my fair share, especially stuffed into ravioli. Of course, exactly the opposite happened. I’ve been craving it more than ever.

The other day I decided to make my own. I had done this a couple of times a few years back and was pleased with the results, not to mention surprised at how easy it was to do, by merely heating milk and buttermilk in a pot until curds form.

Strictly speaking, that's not true ricotta, which is made from the whey that results when other cheeses are made, such as pecorino. The whey is the cloudy liquid left behind once the milk proteins have been separated out into curds. The liquid, in which a few proteins remain, is reheated together with an acid (such as vinegar, lemon juice or buttermilk) until new, soft curds form. These curds are the "ricotta" (the term translates to "recooked.")

Ricotta can be made from sheep’s milk or cow’s milk or even buffalo milk. Although I love the flat sweetness of fresh sheep’s-milk ricotta, I don’t have a source for sheep’s milk, so I made mine with organic whole cow’s milk. For the acidic component, which is necessary to make the curds separate, I used buttermilk because it gives the ricotta just enough tanginess. The entire process took just 45 minutes, and afterward I was left with a good feeling of accomplishment and a bowlful of delicate white curds.

You can do all sorts of things with fresh ricotta: Sprinkle it with sugar and berries and have it for breakfast; bake it into a lovely tart for dessert; stuff ravioli (if you’re feeling ambitious), or make Stuffed Baked Ricotta (Ricotta Farcita al Forno), which is what I did with my batch. I had seen ricotta farcita for sale in a cheese shop in Abruzzo — a concoction of ricotta, prosciutto, mushrooms, greens and sausage that was baked and sold by weight — and regretted not trying it, so I was determined to try to re-create it.

I made two versions, one with eggs beaten into the mixture and one without. The baked ricotta with eggs was a bit like a crustless quiche, though not as custardy in texture. The eggless version did not puff as it baked, but the flavors were more pronounced. Both were delicious.

When making fresh ricotta, keep these tips in mind:

* Use good-quality whole milk and good-quality cultured low-fat buttermilk. The flavor of the cheese reflects the flavor of the dairy products you, so don’t skimp.

* Use a heavy-bottomed pot to keep the milk from scorching as it heats.

* Use a heatproof, flexible spatula to occasionally scrape the bottom of the pot, to dislodge any curds that might be sticking.

* Don’t overcook the ricotta or you will end up with tough curds. They will still be tasty but they won’t be as delicate, which is what you're after.

* The longer you drain ricotta the firmer it becomes. If you plan to eat it fresh, drain it in a colander lined with several layers of cheesecloth for just a few minutes. If you plan to bake it, as in the Stuffed Baked Ricotta, drain it for 15 minutes to produce a firmer curd.

Recipes for Homemade Ricotta and Stuffed Baked Ricotta follow....

-- Domenica Marchetti, whose Web site is

Homemade Ricotta
Makes about 2 pounds*

You won't need rennet, but you will need 2 square yards of cheesecloth to make this fresh ricotta.

MAKE AHEAD: The ricotta can be refrigerated for up to 1 week, but is best eaten within a day or two of when it was made.

1 gallon whole milk
1 quart cultured low-fat buttermilk (may substitute 1/3 cup distilled white vinegar or 1/3 cup strained, freshly squeezed lemon juice)

Combine the milk and buttermilk in a large, heavy-bottomed pot (such as an enamel-coated cast-iron pot) and set it over medium-high heat.

While the milk and buttermilk are heating, rinse the cheesecloth under cold water and squeeze out any excess water. Fold the cheesecloth to create at least 4 layers, then drape it over a large fine-mesh strainer or colander (so there is some excess cheesecloth hanging over the rim). Place the strainer or colander in the sink.

Stir the milk occasionally as it heats up, taking care to scrape the bottom with the spatula every so often. After about 20 minutes, you will see the first curds appear on the surface. At this point you should stop stirring, but continue to occasionally run the spatula along the bottom of the pot to release any curds that may be stuck there.
As more curds form, they will collect into a thick, soft mass and float to the surface, leaving a cloudy liquid (the whey) beneath them. As soon as this separation occurs, transfer the pot to a spot next to the sink. Begin ladling the ricotta into the cheesecloth-lined strainer or colander. The best way to do this is to use the ladle to gently push aside the curds, then ladle the whey into the strainer or colander. (If you ladle in the curds first, it will take longer for the ricotta to drain and the whey will press down the curds as it is poured over them).

Once you have ladled in most of the whey, use the ladle to gently scoop the curds into the colander. Fold any overhanging cheesecloth over the top of the curds (without pressing) and let it drain for 5 to 15 minutes (or longer), depending on how firm you want your ricotta to be. Discard any leftover whey. If you’re not using the drained ricotta immediately, spoon it into a container with a tight-fitting lid and refrigerate.

* If you do not use buttermilk, the total yield of fresh ricotta may be somewhat less.

Per 2-ounce serving: 174 calories, 10 g protein, 16 g carbohydrates, 9 g fat, 5 g saturated fat, 37 mg cholesterol, 194 mg sodium, 0 g dietary fiber, 1 g sugar

Baked Stuffed Ricotta (Ricotta Farcita al Forno)
8 side-dish servings

This baked dish isn’t really "stuffed" ricotta, but rather a mixture of ricotta and sauteed savory ingredients baked together. Serve it for brunch, as a main dish for supper or as an accompaniment to grilled chicken or chops.

3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for greasing the baking dish
1 pound button or cremini mushrooms, cleaned, trimmed and cut into thin slices
1/2 teaspoon salt
Freshly ground black pepper
4 ounces baby spinach leaves
2 pounds (1 batch) homemade ricotta (see recipe above)
1 ounce prosciutto, cut into very thin strips (julienne)
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 large eggs, lightly beaten (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Use a little of the oil to grease a medium (8-inch-square) baking dish.

Warm the 3 tablespoons of oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the mushrooms and stir to coat evenly, then sprinkle with the salt and a generous grinding of pepper.
Cook for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms have released their liquid and that liquid evaporates. Then cook for 5 to 10 minutes, stirring once or twice, until the mushrooms are lightly browned.

Add the spinach by the handful and cook for about 5 minutes, until it has completely wilted and is tender. Transfer the vegetable mixture to a large mixing bowl; let cool for 10 minutes.

Add the ricotta, prosciutto and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese to the cooled mixture, then the eggs, if using; mix well. Spoon the mixture into the prepared baking dish and use your fingers or a spatula to pack it down.

Bake for 45 to 60 minutes, until golden brown. (If using eggs, the baked ricotta will puff up in the oven. The eggless version will not.)

Let cool for 10 minutes before cutting and serving.

Per serving (without eggs): 474 calories, 28 g protein, 35 g carbohydrates, 26 g fat, 14 g saturated fat, 88 mg cholesterol, 847 mg sodium, 1g dietary fiber, 33 g sugar

By The Food Section  |  July 21, 2009; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Recipes , Say Cheese  | Tags: Domenica Marchetti, cheese  
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The variation I read involved heating whole milk with plain yogurt with active cultures and then add acid (lemon juice). 1 cup of yogurt per 1/2 gallon of milk. I forget the exact amount of lemon juice (it was a recipe from the Moosewood folks).

Incidentally, the recipe you mention is also a good way to make paneer cheese. You just need to squeeze all of the liquid out. It helps to put a heavy weight on top of the forming cheese.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | July 21, 2009 9:31 AM | Report abuse

or proportion for those who don't want to make such a large batch as the one provided in the article:
1 quart whole milk
1 cup buttermilk

I myself like to use 1 cup of half & half or cream for extra "creaminess" in the cheese. I then add a few more tablespoons of buttermilk to help coagulate better.

The leftover whey I use for soup, pizza, bread and for lacto-fermentation of sauerkraut and other pickles.

Sylvie Rowand

Posted by: rowandk | July 21, 2009 10:08 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for posting. One of the great things about homemade ricotta is the adaptability and versatility of the recipe. I haven't tried the variation made with yogurt but it sounds like a good alternative.

Sylvie, I like the idea of adding a little half-and-half (or maybe even a little light cream) to enhance the richness. And I'm glad you mention a use for the whey. Right after I threw mine down the drain I realized I should have saved it to boil potatoes, as I was about to make a potato salad.

Posted by: Domenica1 | July 21, 2009 12:33 PM | Report abuse

This is very similar to the way of making paneer (Indian cheese). The acidity is gained from lemon juice or vinegar. Would you say that paneer is ricotta cheese? Interesting post.

Posted by: k1omal | July 21, 2009 12:37 PM | Report abuse

k1omal: Perhaps in this homemade version ricotta and paneer are similar. True ricotta, made from the whey that is left over from making other cheeses, would be different.

Posted by: Domenica1 | July 21, 2009 1:00 PM | Report abuse

Just checked the proportions (and made a batch). Half a gallon of milk, one cup yogurt, 1/2 cup of lemon juice.


Posted by: FairlingtonBlade | July 21, 2009 3:44 PM | Report abuse

I make wonderful homemade yoghurt with 1% milk, yoghurt culture, and nonfat dry milk--just did a new batch last night. And I always save my whey for making bread or as a treat for my dog. If I were to save enough to "recook" for making true ricotta, how would I do that? Can you point to some recipes?
What does boiling potatoes in whey do? Any other uses for whey you can suggest? Thanks!

Posted by: mrmcquoid | July 23, 2009 9:32 AM | Report abuse

I have not made true ricotta from leftover whey, but I have found a web site that explains how to do it, with illustrations:

Hope that helps. As for boiling potatoes in whey, it just struck me as a good idea, as I was about to make potato salad--however, the idea struck me a few seconds too late; I had just poured the whey down the drain when I thought of it. I imagine leftover whey could be used as part of a soup base. You could also use it to cook pasta or beans and other legumes.

Posted by: Domenica1 | July 24, 2009 2:24 PM | Report abuse

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