Mascarpone (pronounced mahs-car-POH-nay) is made from only two ingredients—whole cream and citric or tartaric acid (to thicken the cream). That's it. The process to make it is so simple you can even make your own mascarpone cheese at home.
Characteristics of Mascarpone
Mascarpone should have a very smooth texture with no lumps or graininess. The flavor is milky and slightly sweet, sometimes with a tangy finish. The rich, buttery flavor comes from the fact that mascarpone has a high butterfat content (from 60 to 75 percent). It tends to go bad quickly, so use an open container of mascarpone within a few days. Marscapone can be found in most better supermarkets in the dairy or cheese section of the store.
As mascarpone is made without rennet, it can be enjoyed by those vegetarians who avoid that ingredient since it comes from by-products of veal production. Rennet is used to curdle many types of cheese (including ricotta) and dairy products. For mascarpone, an acid is used, such as lemon juice (which contains citric acid), or the tartaric acid that forms during wine production.
Origins of Mascarpone
This cheese originated in the Lombardy region of Northern Italy during the Renaissance. There are several theories about how the name originated, but it remains unclear.
The closest cousins to mascarpone are English clotted cream and French creme fraiche. High-quality creamy ricotta (avoid ricotta with larger curds) or cream cheese can also be a substitute for mascarpone.
Cooking With Mascarpone
Mascarpone is best known as an ingredient in the Italian dessert tiramisu. Besides tiramisu, mascarpone can be added to both sweet and savory dishes, providing a rich, creamy element.
For a savory twist, add mascarpone to pasta, alone or along with a sauce, to give the pasta a rich and creamy texture. It can replace cream in some pasta dishes. You can also add it to baked pasta recipes, like lasagna, macaroni and cheese, mascarpone and lemon pasta, or baked rigatoni, to make the dish rich and creamy. Use mascarpone to thicken soups, or whisk fresh herbs and garlic into mascarpone for a creamy dip.
A simple way to enjoy mascarpone as a sweet dessert is to sprinkle cocoa powder, chocolate shavings, or sugar on top of a big dollop of it. It's also good with a drizzle of honey on top. Serve these variations on mascarpone fresh berries, figs, or simple cookies.
More Soft Italian Cheeses
These are other varieties of soft Italian cheese that can be used in some similar ways:
- Ricotta: Fresh ricotta has a slightly sweet, milky flavor. It differs from mascarpone in that it is made from milk rather than cream. Traditionally, cheesemakers made fresh ricotta by heating whey (the liquid that remains after curds form during the cheesemaking process) until it thickened into soft, fluffy curds. Some cheesemakers still make ricotta from whey and some make it from whole milk. You can make ricotta at home using cow's milk and lemon or vinegar.
- Mozzarella: Well-known and loved, this mild cheese belongs in the category of stretched-curd cheeses. This means the cheese goes through a step that involves pulling and twisting the curds during the cheesemaking process. This gives the cheese a texture that is slightly stringy. In creamy stretched curd cheeses, like fresh Mozzarella, this stringiness should hardly be detectable. Mozzarella is usually made from cows' milk unless it is called mozzarella di bufala, which is rare in the United States and made from the milk of water buffalo.
- Crescenza (also called Crescenza-Stracchino): This is a thick and runny rindless cow's milk cheese with a creamy whitish color and tangy, yeasty flavor. Crescenza is typically aged around a week. The appearance is very similar to what a big chunk of melted Monterrey Jack looks like and the flavor is similar as well. Crescenza melts well and can be added to pizza, polenta, pasta, or simply dress up the cheese with olive oil and herbs and spread it on bread.