Homemade ricotta takes the starring role in dishes such as this ricotta-honey gelato with orange. - MCT

Ricotta: A big payoff for so little effort

It's the poor man's cheese that isn't truly cheese.

Ricotta — literally "recooked" — originated centuries ago to wring the last bits of protein from whey left over in the cheese-making process. With just a few dollars and less than an hour, modern-day cooks can produce ricotta that reverses its reputation as tasteless paste to mortar lasagna noodles. At the same time, cooks test the waters of homemade cheeses before taking the plunge.

"Cheese has that kind of mystical step from milk to solid product," says Kristen Lyon, a personal chef and soft-cheese enthusiast.

Lyon plans a hands-on class today in Phoenix that starts with ricotta and delves into mozzarella. The former is the simplest illustration of milk's alchemy.

Heating milk changes the nature of its proteins, which begin to stick together or coagulate, at high enough temperatures. Adding acid helps the proteins coagulate. Adding enzymes, such as rennet, creates curds used to make cheese.

Only the first two steps are needed to make ricotta, which requires no special equipment, apart from a kitchen thermometer and cheesecloth, available in most grocery stores. And while most homemade cheeses aren't exactly economical without one's own milk supply, ricotta comes close because the yield is so large: about a half-gallon of ricotta from a gallon of milk.

Ricotta keeps for about two weeks, and if drained for several days becomes sliceable. Lyon makes it once a month, more often in the winter.

"It's just gorgeous on salads," says Lyon.

Fluffier and creamier than commercially packaged ricotta with a melt-in-the-mouth quality, says Lyon, homemade ricotta is a versatile ingredient for diverse dishes but can carry the show on its own. The higher the milk's quality, the better ricotta's flavor, says Lyon, explaining that she uses organic, unhomogenized milk. From start to finish, making ricotta takes 45 minutes.

Warm a mixture of whole milk and buttermilk over medium heat until it reaches about 185 F (a ring of bubbles will appear around the inside of the pan). Remove the pan from the heat and stir in vinegar (regular, old, distilled white stuff). Let it stand for about five minutes until curds form, then gently lift them off with a slotted spoon and drain in a strainer lined with cheesecloth or even a "flour-sack" kitchen towel.

Lemon juice also can be used for the acid, but acidity will vary depending on the fruit, so it can be unreliable. The combination of buttermilk and vinegar replicates lemon's slight tang. See the recipe on this page for exact quantities.

Reach Food Editor Sarah Lemon at 541-776-4487 or email The Los Angeles Times contributed to this story.

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