Science in the kitchen: Homemade ricotta cheese is a snap to make and a joy to eat

When you think of ricotta, what comes to mind? For years, the first thing that came to my mind was the mounds of white fluffy cheese I would purchase from the deli counter that would become the cheesy layer of my lasagna or filling for ravioli and stuffed shells.

That all changed when I stumbled upon a recipe for homemade ricotta from one of my favorite sources, Ina Garten. As luck would have it, I had all the ingredients and made it the same day. The result differed from any ricotta I had ever tasted, both in taste and texture. It is definitely something worth making again. Still, I use it differently than the store-bought variety.

The process of making homemade ricotta is simple. First heat whole milk, heavy cream and a little salt in a saucepan. The add the white vinegar. The mixture will curdle, but that’s what you want.. Courtesy of Penny Kazmier

Ina’s recipe is simple: Heat whole milk, heavy cream and a little salt in a saucepan. The ingredient that miraculously changes this mixture to ricotta is white vinegar. Or, if you have it on hand, white wine vinegar. I am not a cheese expert, but I have come to understand that the acid in the vinegar causes a change in the protein structure of the dairy, causing it to appear curdled. However, this is exactly what you want to happen. Little Miss Muffet would likely not like the next step because you need to separate the curds from the whey, the liquid portion, by pouring it into a cheesecloth-lined strainer, but don’t pour it down the drain — save the whey — more on this later.

Pour the curdled milk and cream mixture into a cheesecloth-lined sieve. You’ll want to save the whey for other uses. Courtesy of Penny Kazmier

If you’re like me, patience will be the most challenging part of making this recipe. But you will be rewarded. I like to let my ricotta drain until it is about the texture of whipped cream cheese. But depending on how you plan to use your cheese, your timing may be different.

I have never used homemade ricotta in lasagna or a recipe calling for a large amount, but you definitely could. I have, however, used it to make a small batch of pumpkin ravioli filling, and the result has been creamy, delicious ravioli without the graininess I have sometimes experienced with store-bought ricotta.

I like to serve my ricotta topped with something simple, like a drizzle of honey, maybe even spicy honey, or my favorite jam. It is especially good with pepper jelly or my favorite orange marmalade. Place the prepared cheese in a shallow bowl and top with the jam, just like a block of cream cheese. I like to top it with a sprinkle of coarse sea salt or kosher salt and serve it with crackers or crostini. Depending on what you use with it, the mixture is also great on top of a toasted English muffin for breakfast.

Now, let’s talk about that cloudy liquid you drained off the cheese, otherwise known as whey. This can be used in almost any recipe that calls for water. I have used it when making bread and as a base for soup, but I have read that some people even use it to wash their hair or drink it the way it is. The internet is full of ideas.

While researching this column, I searched the internet for other ricotta recipes and noticed that many recipes included instructions on not using ultrapasteurized dairy products. I have never seen this in Ina Garten’s recipe and have always used milk and cream I purchase at my local grocery store, including heavy cream that says it has been ultrapasteurized and have had good results. If you can access dairy that has not been ultrapasteurized, you may want to use it for this recipe.

I also noticed some recipes list lemon juice as an option instead of vinegar. I have always used plain white vinegar and had good results. For a consistent finished product, I suggest you do, too, as my research indicates the pH level from one lemon to another can be different, yielding inconsistent results. And, please measure the vinegar as this is a science experiment that requires a specific ration of acid to dairy.

Serve homemade ricotta with crackers with a topping of spicy pepper jam or a drizzle of honey. Courtesy of Penny Kazmier

The first time I made this, I gathered my kids together and told them we were going to try to make cheese as a science experiment. They were slightly turned off by the look of the mixture as we ladled it into the cheesecloth-lined strainer and weren’t sure if they wanted to try it after seeing the curdled mixture, but they were so glad they did when it was finished.

I hope this has piqued your curiosity and that you are craving some creamy ricotta. Please let me know what you think of your version and how you use it. Enjoy!

• Penny Kazmier, a wife and mother of four from South Barrington, won the 2011 Daily Herald Cook of the Week Challenge. Contact Penny at

Once you’ve separated the curds from the whey, you can use the whey for baking, cooking or even washing your hair. Courtesy of Penny Kazmier

Creamy Homemade Ricotta

4 cups whole milk

2 cups heavy cream

1 teaspoon kosher salt

3 tablespoons white wine vinegar (plain white vinegar works, too)

Set a large sieve over a deep bowl. Dampen 2 layers of cheesecloth with water and line the sieve with the cheesecloth.

Pour the milk and cream into a large saucepan. Stir in the salt. Bring to a full boil over medium heat, stirring occasionally. Turn off the heat and stir in the vinegar. Allow the mixture to stand for 1 minute until it curdles. It will separate into thick parts (the curds) and milky parts (the whey).

Pour the mixture into the cheesecloth-lined sieve and allow it to drain into the bowl at room temperature for 20 to 25 minutes. (You may need to empty the whey from the bowl periodically.) The longer you let the mixture drain, the thicker the ricotta. (I tend to like mine on the thicker side, but some prefer it moister.)

Transfer the ricotta to a bowl and use immediately or cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate. The ricotta will keep for four to five days in the refriderator.

Note: I wash the used cheesecloth in hot soapy water when I’m done, allow it to dry at room temperature and save it to use again.

Makes about 2 cups

— Adapted from Ina Garten

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