Everything you need to know about eating and cooking with curds
The Fiat 500 had been on the road for about two hours, first grinding through the frenetic Neapolitan traffic to the city limits, then cutting northeast on the highway toward the Matese Mountains, which mark the divide between the regions of Campania and Molise. Crossing over into Molise, the car turned onto smaller mountain roads, winding this way and that on an unhurried approach to the medieval, hilltop town of Castropignano. Rounding a bend, it came upon hundreds of sheep streaming across the road, cutting off its path. The car slowed to a stop, its doors opened, and out stepped a husband and wife. They weren’t annoyed by this unexpected delay—an escape from the city was exactly what they were after.
“Oh, look,” the wife said to her husband, her eyes set on the shepherd straddling a strapping Arabian stallion. “It’s like the olden days.”
Hearing this, I pushed myself taller in the saddle, cocked my head to the side, and squinted my eyes in what I hoped looked like the wistful yet attentive gaze of a man who’d spent his life ushering sheep through the mountains. I tried not to laugh. It’d really ruin it for these two if they realized I’m from fucking Brooklyn.
Had they spotted me about 20 minutes earlier and about 200 meters farther down the trail from which I’d emerged with my herd of sheep and pack of attending dogs, they would have seen a less impressive and far more comedic scene: me and the horse spinning in circles, a battle of wills played out in dizzying and ungraceful pirouettes. He wanted to go down the trail toward Castropignano; I had every intention of leading the flock in the other direction, back toward the farm. With each turn he attempted to set off toward town, but I’d pull his reins, twisting his head back to the farm. Round and round we went, the horse trying to decide whether to take this kid seriously or buck him off and stomp him into the ground, the kid trying to suppress the panic that was welling inside and project an air of dominance that he clearly didn’t have.
Somehow I won, and over the ensuing weeks, Flash and I cooperatively guided the sheep along byways and trails and over ancient passages, called tratturi, that had been pounded flat and dense by the feet and hooves of 3,000 years’ worth of shepherds and their herds as they migrated north and south with the seasons. My mission was the same as that of all those generations of shepherds before me: to ensure the sheep grazed on a wide range of herbs and grasses, building up a rich milk supply so that, at the end of each day, we could fill the farm’s vats to make cheese, then turn the leftover whey into the world’s best ricotta.
I know: This is a long lead-in to an article about how to make ricotta at home. But skipping over the larger story would just be adding to a problem that’s bugged me for years—far too many people don’t understand what ricotta is and have never tasted a good example of it. If you want to create something decent at home, you first need to know ricotta’s true story and what goes into making it.
What Is Ricotta?
At its best, fresh ricotta is one of the most delicious fresh dairy products on earth.
Ricotta is the Italian word for “re-cooked,” which describes the two-stage heating and coagulation process that goes into making cheese and then ricotta. This is not some trivial fact; it’s an essential aspect of what ricotta is. The stuff being “re-cooked” is the whey that’s left over after making cheese with sheep’s or cow’s milk. The result is what English speakers call a “whey cheese,” though the Italians would tell you it’s not a cheese at all, since it’s made not from the curds of milk but from the remnant proteins in whey.
There’s a measurable difference between a cheese cheese and a whey cheese. The primary proteins in milk are casein proteins and whey proteins. When you coagulate milk with rennet, it’s the caseins that bond and form a solid structure, not the whey proteins. That means cheese has a high casein protein content. (It also contains much of the dairy fat that was floating around in the milk.) While some casein stays behind in the whey after cheesemaking, what’s mostly left are the whey proteins. When you reheat the whey, those whey proteins finally coagulate into their own fluffy little curds, and ricotta is born. That’s right—real ricotta is made of an entirely different kind of milk protein from cheese and has less dairy fat than cheese.*
* Some producers add a portion of milk or cream back to the whey before making ricotta, to boost its fat and casein content. This is an allowable practice that increases yields and makes ricotta production more fail-safe, but purists stick with whey and only whey.
On the farm where I worked in Molise, the farmers would first make wheels of pecorino cheese by gently heating the milk and coagulating it with rennet to form a giant mass of milk Jell-O. The farmers would then carefully cut the milk Jell-O, gently breaking it apart into curds and the thin, yellowish whey. They scooped the curds into forms, pressed them, brined them, and then transferred the wheels to the cheese cave to age.
In some parts of the world, that would be the end of it. If the pigs were lucky, they’d slurp up the buckets of whey. But these farmers still had the incredibly delicate effort of making ricotta ahead. Many ricotta producers add an acid, like lactic or citric acid, to the whey, since it helps the milk proteins form a more stable curd. The problem is that acidifying the whey creates a ricotta with a subtle sour tang that purists won’t tolerate; for this reason, the farmers I worked with eschewed it.
Relying on nothing more than a very precise application of heat—the re-cooking of the whey—the farmers warmed it until a raft of coagulated whey proteins gradually floated to the surface. With the steadiness of surgeons’ hands, they’d lift this new cap of curds off and transfer them to baskets to drain briefly. Using heat alone forms ricotta curds so fragile that even the slightest quiver could dissolve them back into the milky mist.
The ricotta we made on that farm was the best I’ve ever eaten in my life, and in some ways, it’s ruined me forever. The ricotta that most people get excited about is merely acceptable to me; the stuff sold at most supermarkets, I’d sooner feed to a dog. Even without my unrealistic standards, the truth is that most ricotta out there is a piss-poor joke, a grainy mess held together with gums and stabilizers. If a good source isn’t easily available to you, you’re left with one option: Make your own.
Homemade Ricotta: The Good, the Bad, and the Truth
There’s a basic and insurmountable problem with making ricotta at home: Unless you have whey left over from cheesemaking, you can’t actually do it. It is, by definition, impossible. What you can do is make a ricotta-like substance by heating milk and coagulating it with acid, though this is technically a fresh cheese and not ricotta at all, since it includes the full host of both casein and whey proteins. The good news is that when it’s done well, the results can come quite close in flavor and texture to true ricotta, and can far surpass the garbage often sold under the name.
Doing it well, though, is the hard part. After searching out and testing methods published across the web and beyond, I’ve come to realize that most do not do it well at all.
How to Make Ricotta: The Basic Process
Before I get into the details, here’s the basic process. It’s easy.
- First, heat your milk to between 175 and 185°F (79 and 85°C).
- Add the acid, and stir until curds begin to form throughout the milk.
- Stop stirring, and hold the curds at this temperature for about 20 minutes.
- Scoop, drain, enjoy.
Start With the Right Milk
Not all milk is created equal. While ricotta can be made from any milk, cow’s-milk and sheep’s-milk ricotta are the most common. Chances are that if you’re making it at home, cow’s milk is what you’ll be using.
I tested about 10 different milks while working on this ricotta recipe, from mass-market brands, both organic and not, to bottles from the farmers market filled with old-fashioned cream-line milk. I had success with all types except one: ultra-pasteurized milk. Ultra-pasteurization heats milk to significantly higher temperatures, altering its proteins such that they will no longer coagulate effectively. Many national organic brands are ultra-pasteurized, so keep an eye out for that.
Otherwise, all the milks I tested worked: homogenized and not, pasteurized, et cetera. While I didn’t test it in this round, the milk on the farm I worked on was unpasteurized, and, of course, that works, too, if that’s something you use.
Choose Your Acid, and Get the Level Right
The easiest acid to use at home is either distilled white vinegar, which is just a solution of acetic acid, or lemon juice, which delivers citric acid, along with lemon flavor. You can also buy pure citric acid in powder form and make a solution with it, but that’s quite a bit more work, without much of a noticeable payoff. White vinegar adds the most neutral acid flavor, while lemon juice infuses the ricotta with its own flavor. That can work well in some applications, such as if you want to dollop it on pancakes or stuff it into cannoli, but otherwise I’d stick with the vinegar.
More important than the acid itself, though, is getting the acid level right. This is one of the first points at which many recipes mess up. As you read above, purists like the Italian farmers I worked for don’t add any acid to their ricotta. You’re going to have to if you want to make your milk coagulate at home, but the goal is clear: We want to add the least amount of acid possible, to minimize its flavor in the finished product, while still adding enough to get a decent yield. Some recipes err way too heavily in the lots-of-acid direction. These recipes work easily across a spectrum of temperatures, but the ricotta that comes out tastes awful, with none of the milky sweetness that defines a good ricotta.
I ended up with a ratio of 20 milliliters of vinegar or lemon juice (one tablespoon plus one teaspoon) per one liter (or one quart) milk. This kicks off a good coagulation of the milk proteins while minimizing the sour flavor to nearly imperceptible levels. It’s there, you can taste it, but it doesn’t ruin the ricotta.
Get Your Temperature Right
Even though you’re using whole milk and all of its casein proteins for this homemade ricotta, you still want to capture as much of the whey protein as you can. Only through the combination of heat and acidity will the whey proteins coagulate. So that means we need to heat our milk. The question, then, is to what temperature.
The good news here is that you have some flexibility. I got good results with anywhere from about 175°F (79°C) to 185°F (85°C). You can go higher, and you can go lower, but you begin to risk some negative effects. On the low end, you’ll hurt your yield. At 165°F (74°C), the liquid that remained after I coagulated the milk was still plenty milky, and I got about 33% less curds as a result. You could increase your acid quantity to make 165°F work, but then your ricotta will taste like crap. Higher temperatures, meanwhile, can produce drier, grainier curds, in a way that’s possibly similar to cooking eggs—higher temperatures increase the bond strength between proteins, forcing more water out of the curds.
Critical Step: The Hold
Once you’ve heated the milk and added the acid, the curds form within a minute or so. Many recipes simply have you scrape them off right away and set them to drain. This is fast, but it’s a huge mistake.
I started my testing by examining what effects a rest might have on the curds before skimming. To do it, I made a couple batches of ricotta. With the first one, I skimmed the curds right away and set them to drain. With the second one, I removed the pot from the heat and let it stand for about 20 minutes before skimming and draining. The results were clear: Curds that rested in the whey came out lighter and fluffier, with a more tender texture. Curds that were scooped immediately were dense and dry.
I subsequently tested longer resting periods (some recipes have you rest the curds for more than an hour), but I found that the curds became waterlogged and fell apart too easily if they sat for too long.
For a moment, I thought I more or less had the ricotta figured out. But one thing irked me: The results looked like ricotta, they had a texture similar to ricotta, but they didn’t taste like ricotta. They just tasted like milk. If you’re thinking, “Well, doesn’t ricotta taste like milk?”, I’d refer you to what I wrote earlier—too many people don’t know what ricotta is supposed to be like. Ricotta has a flavor all its own.
As it turns out, the solution to achieving this flavor lies not in the rest but in the hold. Instead of heating the milk, adding the acid, and letting it stand off the heat for 20 minutes, you need to heat the milk, add the acid, and then keep it at the high temperature for about 20 minutes. This extended heating gives you all the benefits of the rest while altering the flavor of the curds, bringing out that distinctive ricotta quality.
Remember, it helps to know what ricotta is: It’s re-cooked. The time real ricotta spends at elevated temperatures is essential to what it becomes. We can’t just heat milk, add acid, and declare ourselves victorious. We have to simulate the ricotta-making process more faithfully. Only then will we get ricotta-like results.
The final step is to separate the curds from the remaining whey. It can be very tempting to line a strainer with paper towels or cheesecloth and try to pour it all through. Don’t do that. Fine strainers clog quickly, and attempting to pass all the liquid through will leave you with a wet sludge that never fully drains. Instead, use a slotted spoon, mesh spider, or small fine-mesh strainer to carefully lift out as much of the curd as you can, and let that drain.
The rest, well, I guess it can go to the pigs, if you have them.