Mention ricotta and a classic Italian lasagna might spring to mind, but this fresh, soft, moist cheese with a rich mouthfeel and milky flavor also works well in many other dishes, including desserts. It's an Italian classic now widely produced and consumed in many parts of the world, including the United States. Though most commercial ricotta comes from cow's milk, it's possible to produce ricotta from sheep's, goat's, and water buffalo's milk too. It's naturally low in fat while delivering a healthy dose of both protein and calcium.
- Origin: Italy
- Characteristics: Fresh, moist, and mild; milky flavor
- Availability: Widespread; easy DIY
- Substitutes: Cottage cheese, cream cheese
What Is Ricotta?
Technically, ricotta could be considered a cheese byproduct. The word ricotta means recooked in Italian, and ricotta production involves reheating the whey left over from making other cheeses such as mozzarella and provolone. Ricotta originated in Italy, where it could be made from the milk whey of any dairy animal, including cows, sheep, goats, and Italian water buffalo. In the United States, ricotta production generally uses a combination of whey and whole, low-fat, or skim cow's milk. Ricotta is widely available and inexpensive.
In texture, ricotta resembles a grainy, thick sour cream. Naturally low in fat, it provides 42 percent of the recommended daily value of calcium in a half-cup serving. It's also lower in sodium than cottage cheese, but because it comes from the lactose-rich whey, anyone with lactose intolerance should avoid it.
Ricotta vs. Ricotta Salada
Ricotta, a fresh cheese, turns into ricotta salada when it gets pressed, salted, and dried. The texture becomes more crumbly, like feta or cotija cheese with a similar saltiness. Ricotta and ricotta salada aren't interchangeable. Whereas fresh ricotta may be added to dishes in dollops or stuffed into pasta, ricotta salada makes a good finishing choice to sprinkle on top of a salad, scatter onto a plate, or garnish a soup.
How Ricotta Is Made
To form curds, whey or milk must be acidified, either by natural fermentation or through the addition of an acid such as lemon juice, vinegar, or buttermilk. Commercial producers also commonly add rennet, a thickener derived from an enzyme found in the stomachs of ruminant animals. When the acidified whey gets heated almost to boiling, the proteins clump together and form curds. The cooled and strained loose curds become fluffy ricotta.
You can make ricotta cheese at home. It takes a half gallon of whole milk and 2 cups of buttermilk to produce 1 1/2 cups of ricotta. Take care not to boil the milk, which toughens the curds.
You can substitute cottage cheese for ricotta in equal measures, but the flavor will be milder and a bit saltier. Cottage cheese curds are also usually quite a bit larger. For some recipes, you may want to smooth the cottage cheese by putting it through a blender with 1 tablespoon of milk or water.
Cream cheese, including mascarpone, can also work but will increase the fat content of the dish and alter the texture a bit. Queso fresco provides a similar texture and fresh flavor, while a soft, young goat cheese replicates the texture of ricotta but with a vastly different flavor. For dairy-free dishes, tofu can stand in for ricotta in many recipes.
Ricotta often appears in recipes for lasagna and other Italian casseroles. It's also a common stuffing ingredient for ravioli, manicotti, and other types of pasta. In desserts, it can be used similarly to mascarpone in cheesecake or blended with sugar, spices, and flavorings to fill cannoli or as a layer cake filling. Ricotta can substitute for mayonnaise in sandwiches and be used in omelets and quiche. Italians often enjoy it spread on toast with a little honey, and it pairs particularly well with fresh figs.
Highly perishable ricotta cheese must be kept refrigerated in a tightly closed container. It should be snowy white in color; yellowing indicates age and deterioration. Check the container for an expiration date. Once you open it, use it within one week. Discard ricotta at any sign of mold. Homemade ricotta only lasts for a couple of days, so make it right before you intend to eat it and be sure to invite friends over. Ricotta can be safely frozen for up to six months, though it may affect the texture and flavor. Defrost it slowly in the refrigerator before you use it.
Start by making your own ricotta or purchasing a high-quality product. Cheese takes on the flavor of whatever the cows were eating while they produced the milk that would be turned into the curds.