Chef Dan Bonanno is out to redeem ricotta. The fresh version he makes at A Pig in a Fur Coat in Madison, Wisconsin, upends any presumption that the soft cheese is merely a bland lasagna filling. It’s more creamy than grainy, with the subtle yet unmistakable flavor of the main ingredient from whence it came—milk. By comparison, some mass-produced ricottas have stabilizers or fillers. “They’re fake,” Dan explains simply. That’s reason enough for him to pull out the cheesecloth, but for the home cook, there’s another motivator: It’s just so darn cool.
Ricotta in Three Steps
Forget anything you might be imagining about fermenting or aging. This is the baking soda volcano of cooking projects, fast and impressive, with a method as simple as the shopping list.
1) Pour 1 gallon of whole milk into a large pot. For extra-creamy ricotta, add 2 cups of whipping cream. Stir in 1 teaspoon sea salt or kosher salt. Slowly warm the milk over medium heat. When you notice steam and tiny bubbles forming on the surface, check the temperature. At about 180 or 185, just shy of boiling, remove the pot from the heat.
Resist the urge to use low-fat or skim milk. As with any cheese, the flavor comes from fat.
2) Gently stir in 1/3 cup distilled white vinegar. You’ll see curds forming immediately. Let stand 10 minutes. Meanwhile, line a sieve with a double layer of damp 100-percent-cotton cheesecloth. Place the sieve in a larger pan. With a slotted spoon, ladle the curds into the sieve.
Some ricotta recipes use lemon juice, but Dan prefers the neutral flavor of vinegar.
3) Let drain for 20 to 60 minutes, depending on how dry you want your ricotta. Lift the cheesecloth and squeeze gently. If the liquid runs clear, squeeze a little more. When the liquid runs milky, stop. Discard cheesecloth and drained liquid. You’ll have about 4 cups of cheese; store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 7 days.
The texture is up to you. A short strain will make a soft cheese for spreading or dolloping. A longer strain yields firm curds to scatter on salads or pasta.
How to Use Ricotta
Enjoy the first spoonful warm from the sieve or on toast. Use the rest in simple dishes that show off the ricotta’s snowy color and rich flavor.
Dinner: Spread ricotta on pizza dough. Bake, then top with arugula, prosciutto, salt, pepper and olive oil. Tomatoes and basil play well, too.
Appetizers: Smear ricotta on toast points or a baguette; broil if you like, then drizzle with good balsamic or top with fresh peas, lemon zest and olive oil.
Sweets: Serve ricotta for dessert or breakfast with soft fruits, such as berries or figs. You can flavor it with citrus zest, or drizzle it with honey.