Remains of the Whey: Ricotta used to be a cheese made from leftovers—now it’s dairy deluxe
Fresh, creamy ricotta is the simplest of cheeses, yet one of the most challenging to bring to market.
Unlike other cheeses, it peaks on day one and is never more seductive than when first scooped from the vat. How can a cheesemaker hope to deliver that taste experience to consumers when the cheese still has to be packed and shipped?
In recent years, a handful of American cheesemakers from Rhode Island to California have embraced that mission, with impressive results. Most of these artisan ricottas don’t travel far beyond their place of origin, ensuring that an all-important quality—freshness—isn’t compromised. Those of us with a vivid taste memory of ricotta from vacations in Naples or Tuscany can now re-create the experience with domestic products that hit close to the mark.
In its most traditional incarnation, ricotta is a by-product of pecorino (sheep’s milk cheese) production. In Tuscany, Sicily, Calabria, and other parts of Italy where this cheese reigns, the whey left over from cheesemaking isn’t discarded or fed to pigs, as is typical in other creameries. The whey contains significant protein, and frugal cheesemakers learned long ago to harvest that nutrition by reheating the whey (ricotta means “recooked”) until it yields fluffy curds that float to the surface. These delicate flocks would be scooped into small perforated baskets—made of woven reeds in earlier times—to drain briefly. Within hours, the ricotta could hold a shape and was ready for sale—welcome cash flow for small producers whose wheels of pecorino required two to three months to mature.
America’s cheesemakers are replicating the old-world methods of making fresh ricotta to varying degrees. At California’s Bellwether Farms, cheesemaker Liam Callahan adds whole milk to his whey to improve yield, a technique common in Italy now, too. The same is true at Coach Farm in New York, where cheesemaker Hector Gonzalez creates a goat’s milk ricotta using 80 percent whey mixed with 20 percent whole goat’s milk. Most of the high-end domestic ricottas, however, are made entirely with whole milk—cow’s milk, generally— yielding a product with a creamier mouthfeel and superior richness compared to a ricotta made with some proportion of whey.
“It’s a total luxury to have whole milk,” says Louella Hill of Narragansett Creamery in Providence, Rhode Island, whose cow’s milk ricotta won best in class at the 2008 World Championship Cheese Contest. “The higher fat content gives a much more delicate texture.”
Most modern ricotta producers depart from the traditional recipe in another significant way: they add acid—typically citric acid or vinegar—to coagulate the milk quickly rather than relying on the lactic acid produced more slowly when milk is cultured with bacteria. At Salvatore Bklyn, a tiny three-year-old venture, cheesemaker Betsy Devine uses lemon juice to produce the 250 pounds of ricotta she makes every week in a friend’s restaurant kitchen.
“You can taste the lemon, and that gives it a wonderful citrusy lilt,” says Anne Saxelby of Manhattan’s Saxelby Cheesemongers, which carries Devine’s cheese. “It’s a nice counterpoint to the richness.”
Callahan uses vinegar in his sheep’s milk ricotta, and in one of the two cow’s milk ricottas he makes. First he heats whey and milk to just short of boiling. Then he adds salt and a small amount of vinegar. the curds appear within minutes, as the acid causes the milk proteins to clump; the drained ricotta, however, bears little vinegar taste.
This year, Bellwether debuted a cheese that may be unique in this country: a fresh ricotta made solely from the cultured milk of Jersey cows. Jersey milk is exceptionally rich, and since Callahan doesn’t dilute it with whey, the ricotta he produces from it is notably more lush and buttery than Bellwether’s part-whey ricotta. But the culture makes the most obvious difference: it’s allowed to work slowly until sufficient lactic acid develops to coagulate the milk, lending the finished ricotta an appealing clotted-cream taste.
“It’s much trickier and more fragile, but you get this incredible flavor,” Callahan says.
Currently, he drains the ricotta for a day— longer than is usual—then scoops it into tubs because his chef customers prefer a firm, well-drained product. For consumers, Callahan plans to sell the ricotta in perforated draining baskets so it is handled as little as possible. “I don’t feel you can repack ricotta,” he says. “Every step causes damage.”
Hand It Over
Calabro Cheese, a creamery in East Haven, Connecticut, has perhaps done the most to raise awareness of hand-packed fresh ricotta. Stores around the country carry its one-pound pierced tins, the fluffy ricotta inside mounded like ice cream in a cone. The tins are shrink-wrapped and, theoretically, have a refrigerated shelf life of 28 days, though the cheese is undoubtedly best when fresh. (Calabro also makes a machine-packed ricotta, sold in tubs, but the texture is less tender.)
In the heart of Manhattan’s Little Italy, Alleva Dairy has been selling its own hand-scooped ricotta since opening in 1892. Current proprietor Bob Alleva says his immigrant great-grandmother started the business upstate, making the cheese on the family farm and selling it to New York City’s Italian community. Today a Schenectady creamery produces the cheese for Alleva, loosely packing it in tall tins with drainage holes. The shop sells 400 to 500 pounds a week.
Ricotta made by large manufacturers often contains gums to stabilize it, which alters the delicate curd structure. Wisconsin-based BelGioioso is an exception, creating its cow’s milk ricotta from whey left over from mozzarella production, plus whole milk, salt, and vinegar.
Purists will tell you that ricotta isn’t technically a cheese because it isn’t cultured (Bellwether’s new Jersey-milk product being an obvious exception). But most of its fans don’t fuss about these fine points. They care more about that milky fresh fix and dreamy texture—qualities that make ricotta such a satisfying cheese to toss with pasta, pair with fruit, or spoon onto toast. “We’re looking for a clean aroma and a creamy mouthfeel,” says Juliana Uruburu, cheese manager for the Pasta Shop in Oakland and Berkeley, California, and a ricotta devotee. “There’s nothing like slicing off a nice, thick piece of basket ricotta,” she adds, “laying it on warm, toasted bread, and drizzling it with a fabulous new-harvest olive oil and fleur de sel.”
Fresh & Domestic
From whole cow’s milk acidified with high-acid whey; hand- packed in a tin with drainage holes. No salt is added, so the flavor is sweet and milky but quite plain.
BelGioioso Whole Milk Ricotta
This high-moisture ricotta made from whey and cow’s milk has a creamy, spreadable texture with no obvious curds. The flavors are sweet and milky, the finish clean, and the salt appropriate.
Bellwether Farms Sheep’s Milk Whey Ricotta
From sheep’s milk whey and sheep’s milk acidified with vinegar; hand-packed in three-and-a-half-pound baskets or tubs. Snow white, moist, and barely sliceable, this ricotta has the tender texture of soft tofu. Salt quotient is perfect. Sweet and fresh, with an intriguing animal quality typical of sheep’s milk.
Bellwether Farms Whole Cow’s Milk Ricotta
A cultured whole cow’s milk ricotta hand-packed in a square drainage basket; it’s pale butter in color with a soft, quivery— though sliceable—texture. The taste and aroma are reminiscent of crème fraîche, with a buttery richness. Salt is ample but not overpowering.
Calabro Hand-Dipped Ricotta
Made according to a 100-year-old method, this artisan ricotta has a buttery sweetness and a creamy, fluffy texture with lingering fresh milky flavors. Hand-dipped and hand-packed into perforated metal cones for ideal drainage, Calabro considers this ricotta the pride of its cheese line.
Coach Farm Goat Milk Ricotta
A “deli-style” ricotta made from goat’s whey, meant for use as an ingredient rather than as a stand-alone cheese. Spoonable and pasty, its texture is slightly pebbly. Flavor is salty at first, giving way to that of cooked milk and a hint of goat’s milk.
Harley Farms Goat’s Milk Ricotta
hand-ladled into one-pound draining baskets, this farmstead goat’s milk ricotta has a dense, chewy texture and bright white appearance. Its flavor and salti- ness are subtle, with the taste of fresh milk and cooked protein coming to the fore.
Narragansett Creamery Renaissance Ricotta
From whole cow’s milk acidified with vinegar, this kettle-heated ricotta is lightly salted, moist, and delicate on the tongue. Hand-packed in a tin with drainage holes, it stays sweet and fresh for days.
Old Chatham Sheepherding Company Ricotta
Made from sheep’s milk whey and packed in tubs, it has a pebbly, chewy texture and an ivory hue. Salt is a prominent flavor yet doesn’t detract from a sweet, milky finish. This is a workhorse ricotta, best for cooking and baking.
Salvatore Bklyn Ricotta
Made from whole cow’s milk acidified with lemon juice and hand-packed in eight-ounce tubs, this brand is smooth and spreadable—closer in texture to cream cheese than classic ricotta—and has a pronounced lemon flavor.
Aged & Imported
Casa Madaio Barilotto
A buffalo whey ricotta matured for at least 40 days, it has an exceptional umami-like richness that coats the mouth, balanced by a tangy, lemonlike brininess. The texture is flawlessly smooth and white, like fine paper.
Marcelli Formaggi Ricotta Ginepro
Made from raw sheep’s whey, this superb ten-ounce disk is cured for two months. Smoked over juniper wood, it’s exceptionally moist and creamy for aged ricotta yet sliceable; salt and smoke are prominent but not aggressive.
Marcelli Formaggi Ricotta Peperoncino
A cold-smoked sheep’s whey ricotta coated with abruzzo chili peppers and aged for three to six months. The texture is silky smooth and dense, but not dry. Flavors are spicy and sweet with a mild smoky finish.
Gregorio Rotolo Ricotta Scorza Nera
Made from organic raw sheep’s milk whey and aged for 100 days. Flavors are creamy and spicy with a pronounced tang offset by the natural sweetness of the sheep’s milk; semisoft texture is extremely smooth and fine.
Pietra Del Sale Ricotta Stagionata
From goat’s and sheep’s whey, this aged ricotta is dense and delightfully creamy with light salting. Firm enough to shave, it makes an excellent table cheese.
Written by Janet Fletcher
Product reviews by Janet Fletcher & Kate Arding
Photography by Jason Houston