Ricotta is a unique fresh cheese that can be used as whipped cream or cream cheese, yet is low-calorie, low-carbohydrate, low-fat, and high in protein.
Ricotta means "cooked once again" and is literally just that. The economical Italian country wife looked for a use for the whey left over from making her famous hard cheeses and found that with high heat and acid she could precipitate the albumin (protein) in the whey and thereby obtain a delicious fresh cheese. Other cheese-producing countries have created similar types of whey cheese, such as the Swiss hudelziger and mascarpone, the latter from goat's-milk whey; and the French gran de montagne, made from whey and enriched with cream. Other exotic names for ricotta-type cheese include recuit, broccio, brocette, serac, ceracee, and mejette.
Ricotta is most often sold fresh. It is rather sweet (as opposed to the slightly tangy flavor of cottage cheese) and creamy, and melts beautifully without separating in baked dishes such as Italy's famous lasagna.
A less well-known product is dried ricotta, available only in specialized cheese shops or your own home dairy. This is a piquant grating cheese and does not require the refrigeration mandatory for fresh ricotta. So if you make too much to consume within a few days, you can press and dry it.
Old World Ricotta
To prepare Old World ricotta, you need whey. This is the nutritious liquid left over from curdled milk when you have removed the curd. It contains the water-soluble proteins, vitamins, and minerals in the milk, such as the soluble calcium. Most people do not realize that one-third of the calcium in milk is left in the whey in the cheese-making process, even more when the cheese is made by the acid-coagulation method such as in the tangy, small-curd cottage cheese, rather than the rennet method. Liquid whey also contains most of the milk sugar. However, in the finished ricotta cheese only 3 percent lactose remains, so those on a low-carbohydrate diet can enjoy it also.
You will need at least 2 to 3 gallons of whey plus a few cups of whole milk to make one pound of ricotta cheese. This is a lot of whey and not very practical for home cheese-making, especially if you must collect the whey from the milk of one or two goats. If you do have the whey, however, here is how to prepare it:
Old World Ricotta
Yield: about 1 pound
2 1/2 gallons liquid whey
1 pint whole fresh milk
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
Heat the whey until the cream rises to the surface. Add the fresh milk and continue heating to just below the boiling point (about 200°F). Stir in the vinegar and remove immediately from the heat. Dip out the coagulated albumin (milk protein) and drain. Salt if desired.
New World Ricotta
Modern ricotta, developed in the early 19th century, is made from whole milk and is simple and delicious prepared at home. It is also the method used by most big commercial American dairies. Whole or part-skim milk is acidified to a carefully controlled level, then subjected to high temperatures. Although most of us do not have equipment for measuring or controlling pH and heat, the following method works very well. Since the big companies do not divulge their recipes, I devised this one by careful label-reading plus trial-and-error.
New World Ricotta
Yield: about 1 cup
These easy-to-handle proportions are adaptable to small-quantity cheese-making. Dried whey is available in health-food stores and is well known for its beneficial action on friendly intestinal flora. This is one of the reasons ricotta is such a highly digestible food. Dried whey contains about 13 percent protein, has 5 times the calcium of liquid milk, and is a good source of riboflavin and iron.
1 quart homogenized whole or partially skimmed milk (fresh and just milked is best but powdered skim can also be used)
1/4 cup dried whey powder
1/8 cup liquid buttermilk (2 tablespoons)
Stir the whey powder into the milk with a whisk and dissolve well. Stir in the buttermilk. Cover the bowl with waxed paper or place in cold oven to incubate for 24 hours. Then transfer to a saucepan and very slowly bring to scalding (200°F). It will separate into curds and whey. Gently drain through cheesecloth; hang to drip a few hours. Salt to taste if desired. Store fresh ricotta in moisture-proof containers, well closed, in the refrigerator.
It will keep about 4 days, maximum, especially unsalted. Milk can be added to the finished ricotta if you like it moister. To dry your cheese for grating, press it heavily in perforated forms, salt it on the surface, and dry in a curing room where the temperature is 100°F or a bit higher. Otherwise, enjoy your fresh ricotta, as is, unadorned, by the spoonful, or in any of your favorite recipes.