This will most probably be the first post on the topic, as my ricotta making is a work-in-progress. I will mention the different recipes that I have tried so far and give a short description of my experience with each one.
Kirstin of Vin de la Table has launched an event that, given my recent interest in making cheese and other dairy products at home, I could not miss, the Home Creamery Event. The event uses the book The Home Creamery by Kathy Farrell-Kingsley as guide. For the first edition of the event, and therefore the first shared effort, Kirstin has chosen ricotta. Here is the announcement, where you can read the rules. And here is the roundup of the first edition of the event.
The word ricotta comes from the Latin recoctus, meaning cooked again. The name describes the process whereby ricotta has been traditionally made in Italy for centuries (nay, millennia), by cooking again the whey (siero di latte) left over from cheese making. When the whey proteins (the most abundant of which is lactoglobulin1) precipitate, they include air and coagulate in a mass that tends to float. The clots are collected with a slotted spoon and transferred into containers of varying sizes and materials (plastic, cloth, wicker) where ricotta is left to drain.
To increase the yield of the process, fresh milk (or cream) may be added to the whey. An acidifying agent helps the coagulation process. This may be citric acid, lactic acid (see the list of ingredients of this brand of ricotta I ate during my recent visit to Italy), or some acidified whey (called agra). Some salt is also usually added (and no other additives that I know of). The preceding remarks are generic: ricotta is made with whey from different kinds of milk (cow, ewe, goat, buffalo) after making different kinds of cheese, and regional traditions play a role.
My desire to make ricotta at home was one of the reasons I got interested in making cheese at home: I wanted to have the leftover whey (from milk to which cultures and rennet had been added) that would allow me to follow the ancient tradition. So far, I have tried four different recipes to make traditional ricotta. Note that I have been making ricotta using whey obtained by making different kinds of cheese (the Neufchâtel on this page [also on this page with photos], this basic hard cheese, some hard cheeses from the book Home Cheese Making by Ricki Carroll) and using a combination of whole, reduced-fat and non-fat milk and this has an effect on the characteristics of the whey I get.
- The result of this recipe was creamy, with an acidic nuance. [photo above] It required patience in the draining process, as the clots were quite small, After I made three batches, I had enough to make a pastiera.
- The recipe called "ricotta from heaven" from the book Home Cheese Making by Ricki Carroll: of delicate flavor, it also required a bit of patience in the draining process. [photo immediately below] Note that nothing is added to the whey in those two recipes.
- The recipe at the bottom of this page (How to make this cheese: Ricotta from Whey) gave a better yield, since I added milk (non-fat) to the whey. It was not as creamy and was a bit bland in flavor. The ricotta was the easiest to handle: I just ladled the curds into the mold. [photo below — I later purchased a ricotta mold]
- I repeated recipe #3, but used agra instead of citric acid and the result was my favorite so far. The ricotta was creamier and more flavorful (also a bit more difficult to drain, but still I did not use cloth). [sorry, no photo]
My plan for the immediate future is to repeat recipe #3 using less citric acid to evaluate the difference, then keep some agra for the next time, when I will repeat recipe #43.
Recipes for making ricotta at home usually list milk as the main ingredient2. High temperature and an acidifying agent cause the formation of curds, which are then are scooped up and drained. The different main ingredient and different process lead to different consistency and flavor of the final product.
For the Home Creamery Event, I decided to try the recipe from The Home Creamery that uses cultured buttermilk (latticello) to acidify the milk (method 1), for two reasons: I had not seen this variation before, and I did not want to use vinegar (an ingredient of method 2 in the same book). I divided the original recipe by four, using 1 qt. of non-fat milk and 1 cup of cultured buttermilk. I tasted the result after adding to it a touch of sweetener: the buttermilk flavor was detectable. I expected the consistency to be not very creamy, given my use of non-fat milk and also the process. However, I departed from the recipe in a couple of details, which may have impacted this characteristic of the final product, so I will repeat the recipe soon and evaluate the difference.
I have been going on for a while and I am not yet done with my story, because there is another part to the Home Creamery Event: the pairing of wine with the homemade cheese. Wine not being a topic in which I can offer an opinion, I asked for advice. From the set of suggestions received, I chose the wine shown in the photo. However, the pairing of it is not with plain ricotta, but with a dish that has ricotta as an ingredient. So, the wine photo is a token of a future post where I will tell you the rest of the story. Stay tuned!
1 On Food and Cooking, by Harold McGee, page 20.
2 The ingredient list of store-bought ricotta should give you a sense of how it is made. If you purchase fresh ricotta from an artisan maker, ask him/her how it was made.
3 See ricotta fatta in casa (2).