Homemade ricotta cheese is incredibly easy to make. It takes less than an hour, and really only requires three ingredients: whole milk, an acid, and a bit of salt. It tastes soooooo much better than the store-bought stuff that once you give it a try, you’ll never go back! Note – there is no bacon in this recipe. I have several bacon recipes that do call for ricotta, however, so it made sense to separate this out.
What do you need to make homemade ricotta cheese? A gallon of milk. An acid – good quality cider or white vinegar, or lemon juice. Possibly a bit of salt. A large, non-reactive pot. A spatula, a ladle, and a sieve. And the most intimidating part of the whole process for me the first time, cheesecloth.
Cheesecloth for Ricotta
What is cheesecloth, and where can you acquire some? What kind should you buy? How do you use and care for it? Are there any substitutes if you don’t have any but need ricotta right now?
Cheesecloth is a thin, gauze-like cotton cloth that comes in various grades. A lower grade (closer to 10) means an open weave cloth with fewer threads per inch that allows more solids to pass through. Higher grade cheesecloth (closer to 90) has a higher thread count, and will leave more solids behind. It can be purchased online, or at many grocery, kitchen, and fabric stores. For cheesemaking, a higher grade cheesecloth is best. If you can’t find the actual number or thread count, look for words like “extra fine weave”.
Mine came in a large block, and I cut pieces off sized to fit my needs. It can be washed, by hand or in the machine (no soap or fabric softener) and reused. Your mileage will vary on the reuse, however – expect to use a new piece for every few batches of cheese.
There are plenty of substitutes for cheesecloth that can be used in a pinch. Muslin cloth is supposed to work well, as will an old translucent dish towel. The Spruce Eats recommends trying panty hose or a coffee filter. Personally, before I took the plunge and ordered some, I used to use a fine mesh sieve lined with a double layer of paper towels. The take home message is, don’t let a lack of cheesecloth stop you from making cheese! Ricotta is very easy to make, and even strained through paper towels, it puts grocery store brands to shame.
Milk for Ricotta
First off, before someone jumps in to correct me, true ricotta is not made from milk. It is made from the whey leftover from making another cheese, such as ricotta. The word ricotta literally translates to “re-cooked”. If you plan to make another kind of cheese, you can follow the directions here from Genius Kitchen to make whey ricotta. However, if you’re like most of us, ricotta is about as far as you’ll ever go down the cheese-making rabbit hole. In that case, just use milk.
The choice of milk is actually pretty important. If you have access to raw, unpasteurized milk and are comfortable with the inherent risks, it will work well for ricotta. Regular, pasteurized supermarket milk will also usually work just fine. The problem lies with ultra high-temperature pasteurized milk, usually labeled as “UHT” or “UP” milk. Most organic milks fall into this category, unfortunately, and will not make good cheese. I’ve accidentally bought UHT milk to make cheese in the past – labels are not always clear – and the curd never really formed. If this happens to you, make a note of the brand. It is probably UHT milk, and the company chose not to make it prominent on the label.
I always use whole milk for ricotta. It’s what our children drink, and what I use for cooking, so we always have it around. It will give you the creamiest ricotta texture. You can absolutely make cheese from reduced fat or skim milk, but the finished product will be more like cottage cheese. You can actually even mix in some heavy cream if you want a more dessert-like feel – mascarpone cheese is made by this same method with cream in place of milk. I have never tried lactose-free or any kind of nut milks in this recipe. Madie’s Kitchen has a recipe that uses lactose-free milk, but I can’t vouch for it. If you try it, let me know!
Acid for Ricotta
Heat the milk, then add an acid to encourage the curd to coagulate and separate out. If you’re a science nerd, scienceandfooducia has a good explanation of why that works. For the acid, you want to choose something neutral and good quality. White vinegar, apple cider vinegar, and lemon juice all work well. The flavor of lemon juice is fairly noticeable in the finished cheese if you go that route. It’s great for lemon ricotta pancakes, but might not go so well in a lasagna or cannoli.
How to Make Homemade Ricotta Cheese
One gallon of whole milk produces 18 oz of ricotta by my scale, so just over 2 cups. This recipe easily halves and doubles, but it doesn’t keep long – only make as much as you can use within a few days. Pour milk into a large, non-reactive pot and heat over medium heat to a temperature of 180-185. Check at regular intervals with an instant-read thermometer.
Once the milk reaches temperature, turn the burner off. Pour in 2/3 cup of vinegar or lemon juice while stirring the milk, and continue to stir for approximately 1 min or until visible curds begin to form. Let the milk sit for 10 minutes to slightly cool.
Line a fine mesh sieve with a damp cheesecloth. Ladle the larger curds into the cheesecloth, and pour the remaining liquid over the top. Let the curds drain before proceeding with the recipe. How long you let it drain depends on how firm you want it to be. I usually go about 30 min, but less is okay for things like pancakes or if you’ll be using it as a spread. Season the cheese with a bit of salt. How much depends on what you’ll be using it for. Possibly none if you’re using it for a dessert or pancakes, but a healthy pinch if you’ll be spreading it on toast.
You will produce a significant amount of whey as a byproduct, which can be saved and used in place of water when making bread or as a cooking or brining liquid for other foods. The first time I made ricotta, I was following this recipe from Gabe Rucker’s Le Pigeon, for Jacked Pork Chops in a ricotta whey brine.
How to Use Homemade Ricotta
Now that you’ve made homemade ricotta cheese for the first time, what will you do with it? Plenty. Ricotta can be used in every course, from breakfast to dessert. Here are a few ideas for you to check out, and let us know how you used it in the comments!
- Lemon Ricotta Pancakes from Serious Eats
- Soft Scrambled Eggs with Ricotta and Chives from Epicurious
- Ricotta Crostini from May I Have That Recipe
- Sausage, Spinach and Mushroom Lasagna from Bacon is a Food Group
- Spinach and Ricotta Ravioli from BBC Food
- Bacon Cannoli from Bacon is a Food Group
Homemade Ricotta Cheese
- instant-read thermometer
- 1 gallon whole milk NOT ultra-high temperature pasteurized (see note)
- 2/3 cup vinegar (white or apple cider) may substitute freshly squeezed lemon juice
- 1 tsp salt optional, adjust to taste and to needs of final recipe – omit for desserts
- Heat milk over medium heat in large pot for about 15 minutes, until it reaches 180-185F (check frequently with an instant read thermometer). Do not boil.
- Once the milk reaches temperature, turn the burner off. Slowly pour in 2/3 cup vinegar or lemon juice, while stirring with a spatula. Continue to stir slowly for about 1 minute, or until visible curds begin to form.
- Let mixture sit for 10 minutes to slightly cool and continue to separate.
- Line a sieve with damp cheesecloth (see note). Ladle larger curds into cheesecloth-lined sieve, and pour the remainder over the top. Place over a large bowl.
- Let cheese drain for 10 minutes for very soft, wet ricotta; 30 minutes for a firmer, spreadable cheese suitable for most recipes, or up to 2 hours if desired. Season the cheese with a pinch of salt during draining if desired, taste, and add more if needed. The whey that accumulates in the large bowl underneath can be saved and used for another purpose or discarded.