In the U.S. we often see ricotta in lasagna and stuffed in ravioli, but we rarely consume it fresh. Such a pity! Fresh ricotta is sweet, delicious, and surprisingly low in fat. Drizzled with a little honey, it is the perfect light dessert during the warm weather months.
The process of making ricotta (and cheese making in general) is fascinating. I’m trying to remember it all from my Animal Science studies days at UCDavis: one of my favorite labs was when we made cheese! The basics of cheese making are quite simple: typically, something is added to milk to make it curdle (something acidic, like vinegar, will do the trick). What is left are the curds (the curdled part) and the whey (the liquid part). The curds are the part that is used to make most of the cheeses we eat (it solidifies, ages, and hardens to become soft, semi-soft or hard cheeses, depending on how long it is aged). And the whey goes on to make my new favorite cheese, ricotta.
Ricotta, actually means “recooked” in Italian. The whey contains proteins that were originally in the milk, but to “activate” these proteins, they need to ferment (typically overnight). They might need bacteria added to aid in this fermentation (most cheeses need a bacteria added to jump start the cheese-making process: see my post on edible cheese rinds for a bit more in depth explanation of this process). But back to cheese: the whey sits at room temperature for roughly a day and the proteins become more acidic. When the whey is reheated (hence the name “recooked”) they combine to form curds. The result is tasty, slightly sweet, fresh ricotta cheese.
There’s the stuff we buy in the store… and then there’s fresh ricotta. I was in for a real treat when I took a trip to Piensa, a town known for its sheep’s milk cheeses, and sampled fresh ricotta for the first time. Much like my first sampling of burrata, I was blown away. Since then, I haven’t been able to get enough! Ask your local cheese monger if they have fresh ricotta (the differences in taste from the packaged supermarket cheese and the fresh style are significant) and drizzle with spoonful of honey. It is soooo delicious.
P.S. I managed to write this entire post on ricotta production without a single “Little Miss Muffet” reference, and it took a LOT of self-restraint. 🙂