Many people are not aware of just how incredibly easy it is to make your ricotta at home, and if you use good-quality dairy for your ingredients, your results will be far superior to most store-bought U.S. brands -- fresher, creamier, and more flavorful. Once you've tried it, you might never go back to store-bought! Note that traditionally, ricotta is made from the whey that drains from freshly made cheese curds, reheated to separate out the remaining curds (hence the name ricotta, meaning "recooked"), but it is perfectly fine (and more productive) to make it from whole milk instead.
It's such a fantastically versatile end product as well: You can spread it on crostini, paired with savory or sweet toppings for fantastically simple, yet elegant antipasti or party finger foods, use it directly as a very simple pasta sauce, thinned with a little bit of the pasta cooking water and seasoned liberally with freshly ground black pepper, or in stuffed pasta recipes, such as this recipe for Spinach and Ricotta Cannelloni. You can use it in countless desserts, such as this delicious Lemon-Ricotta Cake, Cannoli, and Sicilian cassata. And it's not limited to just Italian cooking either: You can use it as a substitute for cream cheese, mascarpone, or any other fresh cheese in cheesecakes or other recipes.
For a lighter ricotta, you can just use 4 cups of whole milk instead of milk and cream. I would not recommend, however, using skim or nonfat milk, or the results can be bland and grainy.
- 3 cups whole milk
- 1 cup of heavy cream
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt or sea salt
- 3 tablespoons lemon juice or white vinegar (I much prefer lemon juice for the flavor, but vinegar can be used as well, as long as it is a neutral, white vinegar.)
- 3 large squares cheesecloth
Prepare either a fine-holed colander or a fine-mesh strainer by lining it with the layers of cheesecloth and placing it in a larger bowl. Set aside.
In a medium, heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat the milk, cream, and salt over medium heat just until it reaches 190 degrees Fahrenheit (prepare your lemon juice or vinegar while the milk heats), occasionally stirring to prevent sticking or burning.
Remove the pot from the heat immediately and quickly pour in the acid (lemon juice or vinegar) and give the mixture a couple of quick stirs with a wooden spoon to incorporate the acid well. Curds will start to form immediately.
Let the mixture sit for about 5 minutes, undisturbed, then pour it into the prepared cheesecloth-lined colander or strainer.
Now let it sit and strain, undisturbed, for anywhere from half an hour (for a wetter, thinner consistency) to 3 or 4 hours (for thicker, creamier, dryer ricotta). It depends on your preference and how you intend to use it, and you can check it periodically to determine whether it has reached your desired consistency or not.
If it's going to be a several-hour-long sit, you can transfer the entire straining setup to the refrigerator (set over a bowl) to finish straining there.