Italian

Why What You're Making at Home Isn't Real Ricotta

by:
January 12, 2016

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.

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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.

24 Comments

unofornaio December 6, 2018
Emiko,<br />"The ricotta forte from Puglia is a spicy, creamy, pungent aged ricotta" We used to get this cheese in the US (near Pittsburgh Pa)my father was from Bari and this is the ONLY place i have ever found it. They have long passed away and the store long closed. Can you send me any link, reference or recipe info you may have on this cheese? I would love attempt to make it. From what know it has DEFINITELY been banned from the US and possibly from commercial sales in Puglia. I know this post is old but ive been searching for many years now. Thank you J. Palmisano<br />thank you for any help.
 
stefan June 16, 2016
i would like to point out that here in malta, just to the south of sicily, we make irkotta. The manufacturing process of the Maltese irkotta involves the cooking of milk, rather than of milk whey, with the addition of calcium chloride (a type of salt) to form a curd.
 
miznic April 4, 2016
Molto grazie Emiko, for posting this. I thought I was the only one that looked sideways at the "homemade ricotta" running around the Internet some time ago. I lived in northern Italy (Asiago area), and grew up with real ricotta - - the one made with sheep's milk. Haven't been lucky enough to have that one here, but now you got me wanting to hunt that puppy down! lol
 
Stacey February 24, 2016
I'm one of the managers at a specialty grocery store in SLC. We sell a great ricotta by a company called Angelo & Franco in L.A.. I met them at the fancy food show in San Francisco last year and they make beautiful fresh ricotta (plus other cheeses). The guys are originally from Bagnoli, Italy.
 
Lori February 24, 2016
Just saying. Making what you call "cream cheese" at home is way more like 'ricotta' and certainly can be used in recipes calling for ricotta. As stated in the article still WAY better than buying crappy ricotta from the grocery store.<br /><br />Its kind of like everyone calling all kinds of bean and or vegetable purees hummus. Hummus is strictly the term for the use of chick peas. No matter though, it is still all delicious and gets its point across.
 
Scott R. January 13, 2016
Caputo Brother Creamery in Spring Grove PA makes the real thing. And its delicious! Check them out.
 
Author Comment
Emiko January 30, 2016
Thanks for adding this to the list!
 
Stephanie H. January 13, 2016
Wow, never knew this! And I'm intrigued by the homemade cream cheese--would it work in a ricotta gnocchi recipe?
 
Author Comment
Emiko January 30, 2016
I think it would work a treat. I'm going to test a batch myself this weekend!
 
djgibboni January 13, 2016
Bravissima, Emiko, for setting the record straight on what is, and is not, ricotta. And yes, even though the stuff we curdle at home isn't truly ricotta, it is truly delicious.
 
Eleonora B. January 13, 2016
THANK YOU! Finally saying it like it is.
 
Author Comment
Emiko January 30, 2016
So honoured you think so! :)
 
mr L. January 12, 2016
the way you make real ricotta is open a cheese making factory and have 100's of gallons of whey leftover so that making actual ricotta is viable and worthwhile, otherwise the yield while using whey in a home environment is negligible.
 
Author Comment
Emiko January 13, 2016
Actually a small amount made at home is usually all you need for a recipe! :)
 
Pipcreek January 13, 2016
Emiko, it sounds as though you have a recipe! :)
 
roszam January 12, 2016
Just a small note which may or may not be of interest. In Malta, which is geographically very close to Italy, we have Irkotta, which is made with sea water. More here: http://www.timesofmalta.com/articles/view/20120519/local/traditional-ricotta-making-in-the-spotlight.420416
 
Sarah J. January 12, 2016
Wow, fascinating! Thanks for sharing.
 
jumans January 12, 2016
so, how does one actually make "real ricotta"?
 
tia January 12, 2016
I was just thinking that same thing!
 
Author Comment
Emiko January 13, 2016
It's described in the beginning of the article - basically the same principle as the fresh curd but instead of using fresh milk, you re-heat the whey left over from making cheese, add a little bit of milk (about 10% of the volume of the whey) and an acid. An example: http://www.emikodavies.com/blog/homemade-ricotta/
 
Pipcreek January 13, 2016
Thanks for share and link! Next time I'll scroll through a bit further.
 
Melissa O. January 14, 2016
Could I make ricotta from the leftover whey from making paneer?
 
jakestavis January 28, 2016
interesting! could you use whey from straining yogurt for the same result?
 
Author Comment
Emiko January 30, 2016
No unfortunately the leftover liquid from making yogurt or paneer won't work at all for ricotta, you need to have a whey that is leftover from cheesemaking with milk and rennet (either animal, vegetable or chemical rennet). At that point, best thing would just be to use whole milk plus an acid (such as lemon juice or distilled vinegar) to make homemade curd (like the link at the end of the article).