Eating Her Curds and Whey

by Kate Payne • Photography by Jo Ann Santangelo

Ricotta cheese is a classic, yet often under-appreciated, staple in Italian cuisine. My education on the subject began when I married an Italian, whose food traditions all seem to include ricotta in one way or another. Thanksgiving dinner’s pregame is a big saucy pan of lasagna and Grandpa Raymond’s ricotta pie—a recipe, passed down from his mother, that also makes an appearance at Easter and Christmas. Ricotta is the Italian word for “re-cook,” a fitting translation because the traditional way to make ricotta cheese involves reheating the whey left over from making sheep’s milk cheeses and mozzarella. In the world of cheese, this is a simple heat- and acid-coagulated cheese that doesn’t require rennet or any aging process—making ricotta an ideal project for the newbie cheesemaker to try at home. Other popular cheeses in this family include paneer in Indian cuisine and queso fresco or queso blanco in Mexican fare.

My own personal love affair with ricotta began when I was making yogurt and French-style ice cream on a weekly basis. I always had milk in the house and only one person who drank it occasionally. Often, I found the remaining milk in the jug had begun to sour. This kick-started research into where I might divert these last pours away from the drain.

Spoilage happens when the good bacteria in the milk consume the milk sugars (lactose) and, in turn, produce lactic acid—aka sour milk. Casein, a player within the grouping of milk solids—a combination of proteins, sugar, minerals, milk fat, vitamins and trace elements—is the protein responsible for curdling because of its phosphorous content, which causes coagulation at a pH of 4.6 and lower. Heat, combined with acidic conditions, causes the casein in the milk or whey to bind and trap moisture and fat into curds.

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There are numerous ways to make ricotta—but they all begin with the base of choice (fresh whey, whole milk, cream, a combination of all three or even soured milk) and an acidifier (lemon juice, vinegar, or citric or tartaric acid dissolved in water). Of all the acidifiers, vinegar (distilled white or cider vinegar are my favorites for this job) produces the most consistent results. I actually prefer the taste of lemon juice, but it can have varying acidity levels depending on the fruit. You’ll need to use more acid if the whey doesn’t become clear as the curds separate out and rise to the top. Select milk with a higher fat content for best results—you can even add heavy whipping cream to the milk for creamier results and a higher yield.

Though using milk results in a richer, creamier ricotta and a larger yield, give whey cheese a shot at least once to see how traditional ricotta tastes. When sourcing whey for a cheese project, be sure it’s been no longer than three hours since its initial straining. Other sources for fresh whey beyond cheese-making include straining yogurt or kefir.