I remember the first time I ever made a fresh ricotta — it was like magic. It was a few months into culinary school, and the particular kitchen we were in had a bunch of milk and half and half that needed to be used up, lest it end up spoiled in the garbage. Chef told us to get some huge pots — the kind you’d use to make gallons of stock — and pour all the milk in it. Not but a little while later, we had beautiful, soft, fresh ricotta cheese. It was nothing like the gloppy, congealed kind I’d come to know from the grocery store. No, this cheese was light, fluffy, and as soft as a pillow. What’s more incredible is that it’s one of the easiest things to make at home (and impress your friends with).
The recipe? Curdle some milk. No really, that’s it. You boil some dairy — whole milk, and whatever other full fat cream or half and half you have on hand — then put acid in it. Use lemon juice, vinegar, or as I did this weekend, both! Strain it, and let it hang out for a few minutes, and boom, you’ve got ricotta cheese. It’s really as simple as that.
The real joy in making fresh ricotta at home is deciding what you want to put on top of it. I’m particularly fond of it spread on some toasted bread, and topped with bright flavors like a vinegary cherry tomato salad with basil. But it’s light sweetness and softness means it’s also perfectly at home with a drizzle of honey and a bit of melon, too. You’re really only limited by your imagination!
If the best part of fresh, homemade ricotta is deciding what to garnish it with, the second best part is the surprise and delight of your guests when you serve it. Most people won’t expect you to make a fresh cheese from scratch at home, and they’re doubly surprised by how different — and more luxurious! — it is than the ol’ store bought kind. Give it a try! Here’s what you do:
Homemade Ricotta Cheese
makes about 1.5 cups of ricotta, depending on how long you drain it
1 quart whole milk
1.5 tbsp freshly squeezed lemon juice
1.5 tbsp white wine vinegar
1/2 tsp kosher salt
–Garnishes of your choice
What you do:
In a medium saucepan, heat the milk until it just reaches a full simmer (you will notice lots of bubbles around the edge of the liquid where it touches the pot, and see the milk gently bubbling). Turn off the heat, then add in the lemon juice and the vinegar at the same time, and gently stir. The milk will immediately start to curdle. Let sit for 5 minutes*.
While it sits, prepare your strainer. Set a fine mesh strainer over a large bowl. Line the strainer with rinsed cheesecloth; if you don’t have any, you can use 1 or 2 layers of clean paper towel (preferably one without any printed designs on it!). You can also substitute a very, very clean kitchen towel, so long as it doesn’t have laundry detergent or fabric softener on it.
Once time is up, pour the curdled milk through the cheesecloth and strainer, allowing the whey (the liquid) to drain out to the bowl underneath. You can expedite the draining process by very gently stirring the mixture with a spoon, to help work the liquid through. Let sit for 15-25 minutes, depending on how thick you want the cheese (a much thicker ricotta should sit for longer). If needed based on the size of your bowl, drain the whey out every now and again. Mix in the salt, then refrigerate the cheese, covered, until you’re ready to use; you can either leave it straining in the fridge, or gently scoop it out and into a bowl for storage.
When you’re ready to serve — well, you can do any number of things! Flavor the ricotta with additional salt, pepper and seasonings (think freshly chopped herbs, citrus zest, citrus juice, olive oil, garlic — whatever you’d like). I think it’s particularly good on a crostini, because the softness of the cheese pairs so well with the crispy crunch of the toasted bread. It’s also the perfect bite sized appetizer to surprise and delight your guests. For my version, I seasoned the ricotta well, then spread it on lightly toasted crostini (sliced baguette), and topped it with a simple salad of cherry tomatoes, red wine vinegar, olive oil, and chopped basil.
Other things to top your fresh ricotta crostini with:
+ chopped hazelnuts and honey
+ sliced cucumber and smoked salmon
+ caramelized onion and reduced balsamic vinegar
+ thin slices of spicy salami
+ minced sun dried tomatoes and olives
+ juicy fresh peaches and a squeeze of orange juice
And of course, you can use the ricotta as you would use any store bought ricotta. So cool, right?
* If you want to color your ricotta, you can add in a spice such as saffron at the same time you add in the acid to the milk. This will turn your ricotta a beautiful, yellow orange color. That same chef in culinary school taught me this — we created some really fun flavors of ricotta!
Be sure to let me know if you try this!