Ricotta is for me strongly associated with Easter and Spring cooking in general: it plays a crucial roles in beloved seasonal dishes, from Ligurian Torta Pasqualina (when the original, more appropriate Ligurian cheese prescinseua cannot be found outside Liguria – that is always!), to Neapolitan ricotta and wheat tart, called pastiera, spinach or nettle ravioli and the endless sweet or savoury cakes and pies that can be found all over Italy at this time of the year, pizza rustica, fiadone abruzzese, pizza di ricotta.
Artisanal ricotta is one of the ingredients I miss most from Italy. I have never tasted here in the UK a ricotta, either made here or imported, that is as good as the one I can have almost anywhere in Italy. It makes sense: fresh ricotta (that has not undergone any pasteurization) is a fragile beauty and it does not travel well. As a consequence what we get here is generally the long-life stuff; local cheesemakers simply do not have the knowledge or the inclination to learn.
So, for me, homemade ricotta it has to be. Well… almost! Ricotta is made with super fresh whey (a lot of it), an ingredient most of us do not have handy. This is a ricotta-style fresh cheese, made with milk and cream.
I have tried numerous methods and recipes over the years (see notes) but this is the only one that has given me results pretty close to real Italian ricotta, come quella che si mangia in Italia, like the one you can eat in Italy. It is based on the recipe given by Rosetta Costantino in her beautiful books: My Calabria and Southern Italian desserts. However, I had to depart from her and find my own ways because the method described by Mrs Costantino did not give me consistent results (still I would urge you to check her out: she is excellent).
This is not an exact science and you will have to play around a little bit perhaps in the first attempts, but the results will always be very good and you will improve your ricotta making in very little time, as I did.
Home made fresh cheese, ricotta-style
yields between 1 kg and 800 g of ricotta
4.563 ml whole milk
250 ml double cream
2 tsp + ¼ tsp fine sea salt
1.5 teaspoon vegetarian rennet dissolved in 50 ml room-temperature tap water. Take the rennet out of the fridge just before mixing it with the milk (see below).
Get a large, stainless steel saucepan and rinse it out. Filming the bottom of the pan with water will reduce the risk of scorching.
Add the milk and the cream, give them a good stir and heat them up, on a medium-low flame, stirring.
If any skin forms on top, you can remove it, as Costantino recommends, or leave it, as I do, stirring it back into the milk.
Bring the milk to 93° C/200° F. Add the salt and stir well to dissolve it.
Transfer the milk to a different pot, filtering it through a fine mash colander. To hasten further the cooling down, I generally then place the pot into the sink, full with cold water, which I change a couple of times. Stir the milk often.
When the temperature has dropped to 35° C/95° F, it is time to add the rennet, which you have just taken out of the fridge and mixed with the water.
Stir well, cover with a cloth, place the lid on and leave it undisturbed for 30 minutes.
When you come back, the milk will have thickened considerably. Break up the curds, giving the lot a good stir with a whisk – the mass of curds will start separating into small nodules.
Heat up the milk on a low flame, stirring it ever so gently with a spider, which you must plunge right to the bottom of the pan, at the edge, pushing the tiny curds towards the centre.
Soon you should be able to start collecting the “ricotta” curds with a spider: I place them in plastic ricotta baskets but you can also use a colander lined with a cheese-cloth or with some muslin.
I switch off the heat only when there are just a few curds left in the pot.
Tip the lot into a lined colander. These last curds will be a little firmer than the first ones, but still very good.
You can keep the whey, to make soda bread, cakes, mashed potatoes… I have never managed to make proper ricotta from this whey (even adding extra milk): I seem to remember that it has something to do with the type of rennet used. If you know about this, please enlighten me.
How long you drain the ricotta is really up to you. This fresh cheese is perhaps at its best (like real ricotta) when barely warm. It keeps in the fridge for up to one week: smell it and taste if in doubt.
Is this fresh cheese identical to real Italian artisanal ricotta? No, but this rennet-based method (more than any other method I’ve tried) does deliver a fresh cheese that is very close to the real McCoy. Artisanal Italian ricotta is light, substantial, creamy, clean-tasting at the same time. It can be sliced but it collapses into a creamy mass as soon as you press it. This ricotta-style is a little firmer and heavier in taste and texture. However, it is also infinitely better than anything I have bought in shops and Italian delis here in the UK. It might take a few attempts to get to this creamy result but it’s worth persevering.
Quantities: A little less or more milk does not make much difference. I found though this recipe does not work as well if it is scaled down. This ricotta lasts for up to a week in the fridge, so I found it useful to make it in bulk (bear in mind that it is not unusual for Italian recipes to call for 500 g -1 kg of ricotta).
The quality of milk and cream: undoubtedly, I get the best results when I use cream and milk that taste wonderful in their raw state. It is not as obvious as it might sound: often even organic milk and cream sold here does not taste much. I generally use luscious and creamy Jersey cows’ milk and raw double cream (48% fat content)
Full fat or not? I think full fat gives the best results: a creamy and luscious ricotta-style cheese. Whenever I used semi-skimmed milk (and cream), my ricotta had a notable dry mouth feel, no good.
Salt: do not skip it; it brings out the flavour.
Rennet: I use liquid vegetarian rennet, this one. It is NOT the same as vegetarian essence of rennet, also known as “junket rennet”: I did try it and the results are far less consistent. Rennet must be kept in the fridge once opened and it must be used well within the sell by date: in fact, in my experience, I have noticed that it tends to lose potency as the sell by date approaches. Rosetta Costantino uses both animal and vegetarian rennet in her recipe. It should be diluted with some room-temperature tap water just before incorporating it into the milk. I have seen on-line cheese-making forums suggesting the use of distilled water: I never had problems using normal tap water. I did a cheese-making class a few months ago and tap water was what they used at the dairy.
Temperatures: pretty important. According to Saveur “Bringing the temperature up to 93° C/200° F sweetens the milk and readies its proteins for coagulation. It also causes the curds to retain more whey, for a creamier, smoother cheese”. I do not know if this is true: I have always sheepishly followed the advice and I have always had good to excellent results. Serious Eats begs to differ though. In this video (horrible sound, but with subtitles) the Italian cheese maker brings the whey up to 85 C/185 F actually, which seems to confirm the Serious Eats point of view.
Methods/recipes I tried and that I found inferior:
The Splendid Table (the cookbook)
Salvatore Ricotta Cheese Brooklyn (nice videos though)
Mozza (the cookbook)
Ricotta made with lemon, citric acid, cider vinegar, apple vinegar, yogurt, buttermilk: nothing works for me as well as vegetarian rennet