Mascarpone (pronounced mahs-car-POH-nay), an Italian double or triple cream cheese, may be best known as an essential ingredient in tiramisu, an Italian coffee and chocolate dessert. But this sweet and silky cow's milk cheese adds rich texture to savory dishes too, a quality achieved by its especially high percentage of saturated fat. Mascarpone originated in the Lombardy region of Northern Italy during the Renaissance.
- Origin: Renaissance Italy
- Milk source: Pasteurized cow's milk
- Texture: Exceptionally creamy, smooth, and thick
- Aging: Fresh
What Is Mascarpone?
Mascarpone is an ivory-colored, exceptionally smooth, and easily spreadable fresh cream cheese. The flavor is milky and slightly sweet. The rich, buttery texture comes from the high butterfat content (up to 75 percent). Mascarpone costs more than domestic cream cheese, although products from U.S. brands producing it in the Italian style are less expensive than imported ones. You can find both in many large grocery stores in the dairy or cheese section or at specialty cheese shops.
Mascarpone vs. Cream Cheese
Mascarpone has at least twice as much fat as American cream cheese, which gives it a richer, almost melt-in-your-mouth quality. You can use the two interchangeably, but you should expect differences in both flavor and texture. American cream cheese tends to be firmer with a tangier flavor. Some dessert recipes call for portions of each.
How Mascarpone Is Made
Commercial producers use the same simple process you can employ at home to make mascarpone, but on a larger scale, of course. Basically, adding acid to fresh cream causes it to coagulate; the resulting curds get gently cooked over a steady heat until they reach the consistency of crème fraîche. Unlike many cheeses that rely on the thickening ability of rennet, an enzyme produced in the stomachs of ruminant animals, mascarpone uses citric or tartaric acid to solidify the cream. Lemon juice works in a home kitchen. After draining the whey, soft, fresh, buttery mascarpone remains. As a fresh cheese, it can be packaged and distributed immediately.
The closest cousins to mascarpone are English clotted cream and French crème fraîche. High-quality creamy ricotta (avoid ricotta with larger curds) or the generally firmer American cream cheese can also substitute for mascarpone, although the result won't be as rich and smooth. To compensate for some of the differences, you can blend the ricotta before you use it, add whipping cream and/or sour cream to American cream cheese, or squeeze a little lemon juice into the mascarpone to cut the richness a bit.
Mascarpone can be added to both sweet and savory dishes, providing a rich and creamy element. Use it instead of whipped cream to top a bowl of fruit or as a frosting for cakes or cupcakes. Bake it into a cheesecake or swap it for sour cream in banana bread or muffins. For a savory use, add mascarpone to pasta sauce or use it in place of cream in nearly any dish. It can also be used to thicken soups, stuff chicken breasts, and as a bagel spread. Drop teaspoonfuls on top of roasted vegetables or mix it into your scrambled eggs. For an easy dip, whisk fresh herbs and garlic into the mascarpone. Or enjoy a big dollop of mascarpone as a light dessert with a sprinkle of cocoa powder, chocolate shavings, or a drizzle of honey on top. Serve it with fresh berries, figs, or simple cookies.
Mascarpone generally comes in tubs, and it should remain refrigerated. Check the "use by" date on the package for storage time, but it's generally a week. Mascarpone tends to go bad quickly, so use an open container within a few days; return any unused portion to the fridge with the lid tightly sealed. If it develops mold or if its aroma or color is off, discard the entire package.
You can safely freeze mascarpone for a few months, but it will affect the texture, and it might separate when you defrost it. It's best for use in cooked dishes.
With mascarpone widely available in grocery stores, it can be your go-to ingredient to make any day feel special.