I didn’t truly appreciate ricotta until Sicily.
In Sicily, I tasted simple, fresh warm ricotta, with no embellishment, served in a terra cotta dish. I tasted ricotta all gussied up in cassata, a fancy sponge cake filled with sheep’s and cow’s milk ricotta (passed through a sieve to become silken), mixed with sugar, candied fruits and bitter chocolate.
Every ricotta I tasted spoke to me. They were creamy but with a slightly granular feel on the tongue. They were sweet from the lactic sugars with just a slight hint of tartness. They conveyed pure dairy freshness you could enjoy with a spoon instead from a glass.
Needless to say, the packaged supermarket ricottas in the U.S. don’t equal the fresh Sicilian. And, I’m not lucky enough to live near any delis that prepare fresh ricotta. (I’m sure they must exist.) So, I decided to try making ricotta myself. I consulted many sources which called for various ingredients to coagulate the milk: vinegar, lemon juice, buttermilk and rennet.
In Italy, ricotta (which means “re-cooked”) is a by-product of the cheese-making process. Whey, the liquid part of milk that drains off after curds are formed to make cheese, is then treated with rennet to produce loose fresh curds which are eaten fresh. The beauty of ricotta is its freshness.
I played with the four coagulants and staged a blind tasting on Walter. He returned the favor and fed me the ricottas so I could taste them blind. The rennet batch carried the day. To our taste, the vinegar, lemon juice, and buttermilk contributed harsh undertones that detracted from the sweet milk. But not the rennet version. It’ll tide me over until I get back to Sicily.
If you plan to try the ricotta recipe, a few pieces of equipment will make the process easier. A chinois, or other long conical sieve, works best for draining the ricotta because it allows the weight of the soft curds to press down on themselves. An instant-reading digital thermometer gives accurate temperature readings. A clean muslin kitchen towel or an old cotton pillowcase (cheesecloth also works well) are important for lining the sieve because they prevent the soft curds from passing through the sieve holes.
New England Cheesemaking Supply Company sells both animal and vegetable rennet at www.cheesemaking.com
You can make a large batch if you like but this amount is workable for a beginner.
1 quart (4 cups) whole milk
1/4 teaspoon kosher or sea salt
1/2 teaspoon liquid animal rennet stirred into 2 tablespoons cool water
Rinse a muslin towel or a double thickness of cheesecloth. Wring it out. Line a chinois or other deep conical sieve with the cloth. Place the chinois or sieve in a deep pot, bowl or other container. There must be space between the bottom of the chinois and the container for the liquid to drip off.
Heat the milk in a saucepan, preferably nonstick, over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally with a wooden spoon until a digital thermometer not touching the bottom or sides registers 200°F. Remove from the heat and stir in the salt. Cool to 125°F.
In a small cup, mix the rennet and water. Stir into the milk. Allow to sit for about 10 minutes, or until the milk thickens and looks like loose yogurt. With a slotted spoon, stir the mixture and then spoon the curds into the prepared sieve. Allow to drain for 1 hour or longer until the ricotta is desired consistency.
Gathering the ends of the cheesecloth or towel, create a pouch and lift it out of the sieve allowing excess liquid to drip off. Lay the cloth on a work surface. With a spatula, scrape all the ricotta from the towel. Eat right away or transfer to a tightly closed container. Refrigerate for up to 3 days.
Makes about 1 cup
The captured whey can be used in place of yogurt or butter milk in recipes.
Have you made ricotta at home? Please share your experience with us.