There is something magical about the process of cheese making; the same kind of magic that I witnessed when I developed my first photograph in the darkroom and watched an image appear from seemingly nothing. In both cases, it was love at first sight.
Ricotta is not technically a cheese but a milk product or a by-product of the cheese making process, like its Lombard cousin, mascarpone (whose name by the way in its local dialect means “ricotta”) and is a good example of how good Italians are at inventing ways to not waste food. Its name, like many fantastic Italian food words, describes exactly how it is made: it is “re-cooked”.
While recently testing out a home fetta-making kit with cheese experts, Rebecca of The Curd Whey and Irina, the editor of The Cheese Mag, I jumped on the chance to make use of the potful of leftover whey after the curds had been collected and drained in their little baskets (the cheese we made is in the photo above). We re-heated the whey, added a touch more milk and a dash of vinegar. Watching the magic happen in the pot is a special thing indeed: fluffy, white specks magically collect at the surface of the pale straw-coloured whey, ready to be scooped out and eaten immediately.
Homemade ricotta is a delightful thing and there are many recipes claiming to be ‘ricotta’ but mistakenly describe a fresh curd recipe made from straight milk rather than actual ricotta, which is mostly whey. They’ve been popping up all over the place and in some of the most respected sources too (it’s one of the most popular recipes on Food52 and even Donna Hay magazine did a feature of a so-called ‘homemade ricotta’ recipe last October. There’s also this extremely detailed and researched article on Serious Eats). But none of these are ricotta recipes. Take the name itself: ricotta literally means “re-cooked” in Italian – where is the re-cooking here?
In fact, these recipes should simply be called ‘fresh cheese’ or ‘cream cheese’ as Elizabeth David does in her book Italian Food from 1954. For her homemade cream cheese, she instructs warming 4 pints of very fresh milk, stirring in 2 teaspoons of rennet and leaving it for a few hours for the curds to separate from the whey. She is careful to describe using it as a substitute for ricotta, pointing out that the taste and texture are quite different from real ricotta.
An almost-forgotten, rustic version of this ‘cream cheese’ also exists in the countryside of Tuscany and southern Italy known as cagliata con i rametti di fico (cagliata means curds, caglio means rennet), in other words, ‘fig branch curd’. A litre of milk, warmed and stirred with the bright young branches of fig trees (which as full of that milky white liquid that is a natural rennet) and left to separate creates a beautiful, thrifty and easy fresh curd. But again – Italians know better than to call it ricotta, it’s a curd.
Ricotta is one of those amazing foods that has changed very little since ancient times and that has made its way all over the diverse culinary peninsula of Italy. Bartolomeo Scappi, the Renaissance chef of the pope, served ricotta sprinkled with sugar and rosewater, or in tarts, both savoury and sweet. It’s used from the north, in regions like Piedmonte and the Alpine regions of Friuli-Venezia Giulia all the way to the southern tip of Sicily, where you can find some of the tastiest ricotta and ricotta recipes in the country. It’s made from the milk of a variety of animals: cows, goats, sheep (the favourite), even buffalo (in Campania the leftover whey of buffalo mozzarella is turned into ricotta – oh yes).
Ricotta is best eaten right when it is made, even standing over the pot, while still warm, if possible. There is a Renaissance illustration from the 1460s that show a woman stirring a vat of curds, while on the table next to a jug of wine and some bread is an already-turned out fresh ricotta and a man standing over it, heartily digging into it with a spoon. This to me illustrates perfectly my ideal way to eat ricotta – immediately and as fresh as possible.
The standard industrial version of ricotta that you can find in supermarkets is a far cry from what this product should taste like. Being such a simple recipe, tasty, quality milk is undoubtedly the most important ingredient. Industrial ricotta will usually be made from UHT milk, which, as you can imagine, is a completely different product from that made of fresh sheep’s milk, straight off the farm.
The problem is that fresh ricotta doesn’t travel well and it’s not meant to last – unless of course we’re talking about the ricotta salata or ricotta forte of the southern regions of Puglia, Abruzzo, Campania and Basilicata: smoked, salted and aged versions that have a following of their own. Grated on pasta dishes, these cheeses have the ability to transport you directly to cheese heaven. The ricotta forte of Puglia is a spicy, creamy, pungent thing that will knock your socks off; the smoked ricotta of Calabria is eaten either fresh or a month later, grated, while the ricotta affumicata of Abruzzo is a thing of beauty smoked over juniper wood.
For this ricotta recipe, which is adapted from the Home Cheesemaking book by Neil and Carole Willman, you will need to begin with a potful of whey that you’ve just made some lovely fresh cheese from and a thermometer to measure liquids (that you’ll no doubt have if you’ve just made cheese). You will get an amount that is about the same weight as the milk that you add. This can easily be doubled or adjusted to other measurements (it’s simply 10% of the amount of whey in milk).
A quick note on the milk: this is the important stuff. For a tasty, interesting, full, rich ricotta consider the types of milk you could get for making this at home. I won’t go into the whole raw milk thing because it’s not accessible to many people but there is certainly much to be said about it – in Tuscany we were users of the raw milk dispensers (much like a soda machine) on the side of the road where you can buy 1 litre of that day’s raw milk for 1 euro! But I will say try to use whole, unhomogenized organic milk. You can choose between goat’s or cow’s milk (even sheep if you can find it – obviously this is the milk of choice in Tuscany). A few things to consider: cow’s milk is sweeter than goat’s or sheep’s milk and goat’s and sheep’s milk is fattier, giving a rounder, richer taste.
- 2 ½ litres of leftover whey
- 250 ml of unhomogenized, whole organic milk
- a pinch of salt
- 20 ml of white vinegar, diluted in some water
Heat the pot of leftover whey on a low-medium heat. When it reaches 60°C, add the milk and the pinch of salt. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon and turn up the heat slightly watching for it to reach 95°C (though my Slow Food manual on cheese making, Le Forme del Latte says it should be between 82-90°C). Add the vinegar while stirring constantly and quickly. Take the pot off the heat and let the whey sit for 5 minutes before scooping out the ricotta with a slotted spoon into a strainer lined with a muslin cloth.
The longer you leave it to drain, the firmer and more crumbly it will become, but it is literally ready to eat as soon as you take it out. It is naturally sweet (especially if you have used cow’s milk); you can add extra salt to it at this point if you prefer your ricotta for savoury use. I recommend eating it immediately, smeared onto a thick slice of toasted bread with a drizzle of honey.
If you want to conserve it a bit longer, try ricotta infornata, baked ricotta: add salt (even herbs if you like), place the ricotta in a greased ramekin or tin and bake it until browned all over and firm – delicious in sandwiches or simply on its own with extra virgin olive oil and sea salt.
To find out more about ricotta and Italian cheese making in general, I highly recommend the Slow Food cheese manual, Le Forme del Latte if you read Italian. Otherwise, visit your local farmers who make cheese and may have a cheese making lesson or tour available. In Tuscany, the most beautiful place for this has got to be Il Podere Il Casale – rustic, organic and genuine.
In Victoria, Australia, Rebecca from The Curd Whey blog has compiled this tidy list of places to learn more about cheese. If you have any good suggestions in your home town or area, feel free to let me know or add it below!