Ricotta has encoded in its name the way it is produced. “Ri-cotta” in Italian means “re-cooked,” or “cooked again,” referring to how it’s made by re-heating the whey leftover from making other cheeses. This process is key to making real ricotta, in its lightest, softest, truest form.
To understand how it’s done, let’s imagine a visit to a small, family-run dairy farm in the Italian countryside.
In the Making
In the first hours of the day, the workshop is still and silent, the only sounds coming from the tanks of fresh milk being brought in from the stables after the morning milking.
Then the dairyman enters the scene. He collects the milk into a big pot, adds the rennet (the enzymes that will coagulate, or thicken, the milk), and brings it to the right temperature for making the cheese of the day (a lower temperature for raw milk cheeses, a higher one if he intends to pasteurize the milk).
Patiently, he stirs the milk with a giant spoon until it starts to curdle, forming thick curds that separate from the liquid whey. He breaks the curds into bigger or smaller pieces, again depending on the cheese he wants to produce, and eventually spoons them into perforated molds, pressing them well with practiced hands, to drain out the excess whey. From here, the curds begin their journey of becoming actual cheese, through salting, washing, aging …
But what we’re interested in right now is the whey, a precious byproduct of the cheese-making process.
The dairyman collects the whey he managed to squeeze out of the cheese molds and pours it back into the pot, to join the rest of the whey left behind after scooping out the curds. He might add some salt, and then he brings the whey back to a higher temperature, about 175–195 degrees F.
This is when the magic happens.
Most of the milk proteins, especially casein, were removed in the cheese-making process. The whey, however, is rich in another protein, albumin, which will be the foundation of the ricotta.
When the whey is heated again, those proteins coagulate and float to the top in tiny, creamy white specks. The dairyman collects these new curds with a slotted spoon and gently scoops them into a perforated mold. This is fresh ricotta—the real deal.
It can be eaten straight away, while still soft and warm, or it can be kept in the fridge for a few days; it will become drier and more compact as time goes by.
By Italian law, ricotta is defined not as a cheese, which must be made from milk, but as a separate dairy product.
Even in Italy, however, it is difficult to find proper ricotta in supermarkets. If you read the label of an industrially-produced ricotta, most of the time you’ll find whole milk—or worse, cream—listed in the ingredients. Most American ricotta is made from whole cow’s milk, simply the same way other cheeses start: by heating and curdling the milk, and straining the curds.
Real ricotta, on the other hand, is made exclusively from leftover whey—perhaps also a bit of salt, but nothing else. Often the best way to find real ricotta is to buy it directly from a dairy farm or creamery.
As for the kind of milk, you can find ricotta that starts from cow, sheep, goat, and even buffalo milk. They will differ in flavor and consistency—cow’s milk ricotta is the lightest, buffalo’s milk ricotta is the richest, and goat’s milk ricotta, somewhere in between, tends to be a bit crumblier—but all share the same light, delicate texture.
How to Enjoy
In Italian cuisine, ricotta is one of the most versatile ingredients. Light, digestible, rich in protein, and delicious, it forms the starting point of many traditional recipes.
You can eat it as it is, with a pinch of salt and drizzle of olive oil, or, on the opposite end of the spectrum, as a dessert with some sugar or a drizzle of honey.
For breakfast or an afternoon snack, have it with fresh fruit and nuts, or spread it on toasted bread and top it with jam. Or, for a savory appetizer, mix it with your favorite herbs and spices before spreading it on toast, finished with seasonal vegetables—grilled, oven-roasted, or simply raw, dressed with extra virgin olive oil—or stuff it into a grilled and rolled-up slice of zucchini or eggplant, for vegetarian involtini—the perfect summery finger food.
For a more substantial dish, bake it into savory quiches; toss it with spaghetti or linguini as an easy, creamy dressing; or use it as the softest, lightest filling for fresh ravioli—on its own, with some grated Parmigiano, or perhaps with the addition of spinach, Swiss chard, or pumpkin.
Finally, for dessert, you’ll find ricotta starring in some of southern Italy’s most iconic treats, such as cannoli and cassata from Sicily and pastiera from Naples. For a quick dessert you can whip up in no time, simply pair it with a compote made from your favorite seasonal fruit.
Giulia Scarpaleggia is a Tuscan born and bred food writer, food photographer, and author of five cookbooks, including “From the Markets of Tuscany.” Find her online at her blog, JulsKitchen.com