Remember a few years ago when the world went crazy making so-called “homemade ricotta”?
Well, it's not actually ricotta. But there is a very good reason to try it.
Ricotta, one of the world's most ancient dairy products, is made by reheating the whey left over from cheese-making with the addition of a little more milk, plus an acid such as distilled vinegar. Ricotta, ri-cotta, literally means re-cooked.
When the mixture is left to sit off of the heat for a few minutes, the fluffy, white flecks of curd begin to appear from seemingly nothing. They are scooped out and placed in a strainer lined with muslin. The ricotta can then be squeezed, hung to drain overnight, or left as is and eaten right away. The longer you leave it to drain, the firmer and more crumbly it will be.
What most people are making when they take a pot of milk and sometimes cream (rather than leftover whey) and add acid to it is a fresh curd or cream cheese. Somewhere along the way that detail was left out of many, many recipes and articles on the subject.
Why this detail bothers me is only because ricotta—real ricotta—is a beautiful thing with a beautiful tradition and history behind it, deserving of respect the same way only Champagne is Champagne and only Parmesan is Parmesan.
Ricotta has changed very little over the centuries; Renaissance chef Bartolomeo Scappi, served ricotta sprinkled with sugar and rose water or in savory tarts. And it made its way throughout the whole peninsula of Italy, so it's not a product that is restricted to one town or region like Taleggio or Gorgonzola (which are, by the way, named after the place they come from).
Depending on the region, it may be made from cow's milk (the sweetest kind); sheep's milk (the favorite in southern Italy in particular, it has a higher fat percentage and therefore a creamier texture than cow's milk ricotta); goat's milk; or buffalo milk (in Campania, they turn the leftover whey from making buffalo mozzarella into perhaps the most delicious ricotta).
There are also many regional variations of ricotta that have been further cooked, smoked, or aged for long conservation. In Abruzzo, they have a ricotta affumicata, which is smoked over juniper wood, while Calabria's ricotta affumicata di Mammola is made with the whey from making goat's milk cheese, stirred with a coagulation-inducing fig branch. The ricotta forte from Puglia is a spicy, creamy, pungent aged ricotta. In Sicily, pasta alla norma wouldn't be complete without some ricotta salata grated over the top.
In Elizabeth David's celebrated Italian Food (first published in 1954 and revised in 1987), she includes a recipe for a “homemade cream cheese” as a substitute fresh ricotta (for those who didn't have access to it) in cooked recipes. She notes that the texture and flavor will not be the same but that it is undoubtedly a better choice than what supermarkets or shops offered at the time.
Her recipe does not even need any heating. She calls for 4 pints of milk to be placed in a large bowl somewhere warm for 30 minutes—much like you would for keeping a batch of bread dough warm to rise. Then 2 teaspoons of rennet are stirred through carefully and the bowl is placed back “in the warmth for the magic to happen." After a few hours, the curd and whey have separated and the curd is lifted out and placed in a muslin cloth to drain for 24 hours.
When it comes to eating or cooking with ricotta, there really is no substitute for the real thing. I'm not talking about the stuff you buy in a tub from the supermarket, which so often is runny, grainy, no structureless, and can be full of thickeners, gums, or other unnecessary additions.
I'm talking about ricotta that was made that day or, at the most, yesterday, and that can stand up on its own. That you can cut in a wedge, that crumbles into soft, plump flecks when you poke it with your spoon, that is naturally, deliciously sweet, like wholesome milk.
Elizabeth David was right to offer a recipe for a substitute for those who could not get this type of ricotta. For those who don't have access to a very fresh, firm, stands-on-its-own ricotta, a homemade version of “cream cheese” or “curd cheese” is still a good option.
Because Italian recipes, whether we're talking Sicilian cannoli or deep-fried ricotta fritters, or filling for ravioli, just can't be made properly without good-quality ricotta. Even spreading it fresh onto bread and drizzling with honey or olive oil just isn't the same if you're using an industrial substance that has been squirted into tubs for supermarket shelves.
Try to find ricotta that is freshly made. Like that day. You will most likely find cow's milk ricotta and it's useful to drain it before using it to cook: Set it in a fine-meshed sieve (with muslin if you have it) for an hour or two or even overnight, depending on what you need it for. Italy's favorite, sheep's milk ricotta, is hard to find in the U.S. but there are local artisan producers making it fresh. I've been pointed towards Bellwether Farms sheep's milk ricotta, from California, while on the East Coast, New Jersey's Valley Shepherd make an authentic fresh sheep's milk ricotta from April through September and Calabro does a creamy cow's milk ricotta.
These last two were recommended to me by Italian-American author Domenica Marchetti who has a host of cookbooks up her sleeve and knows a thing or two about Italian food. She also mentioned basket cheese, a good alternative to fresh ricotta if you come across it. Named for the plastic basket-like container it comes in, you can find this fresh curd cheese in Italian delis around Easter, when it's spread thickly onto crostini or used for making pizza rustica, an Italian Easter pie and a popular Italian-American tradition. Like real fresh ricotta, it only lasts a few days, and it comes in those plastic baskets that are good for keeping to make your own fresh curd cheese at home, like Domenica does.
Also look for fresh ricotta in high-end supermarkets like Whole Foods, cheese shops, or Italian delicatessens, where a large pyramid of it wobbles on display in the refrigerated counter and you can buy it by the weight, in a large wedge.
If you must buy mass-produced ricotta from a tub, read the label. The ingredients should be few and wholesome. Whey, milk (sometimes cream is added too), citric acid (or another form of acid), and perhaps salt. Avoid the ones with extra additions like gums that will become grainy and watery when cooked.
And if that doesn't work out for you, try making your own curd, it's as easy and requires as much effort as boiling an egg. Just don't call it ricotta.