You may have enjoyed the lightly sweet, cloud-like texture of ricotta cheese spread on toast, stuffed in pasta shells, or layered into a lasagna. Ricotta transitions easily from sweet to savory dishes.
But what exactly is this sponge-like wonder, and what gives it that unique texture? Below we've outlined a comprehensive guide into the delicious world of ricotta cheese.
What is Ricotta Cheese?
Ricotta, which means “recooked,” is traditionally made from whey, the byproduct of making other cheeses.
If you have read one of the other articles in our cheese series, such as Gruyere Cheese or Cheddar Cheese, you know that the first step in cheesemaking involves forming a “curd” and then separating it from the liquid “whey.”
Usually, the whey is a waste product, but it contains a small amount of residual protein. To make ricotta, this protein coagulates into tiny, silky curds resulting in a mild, spreadable cheese.
How is Ricotta Cheese Made?
After making another cheese, such as feta, cheesemakers collect the whey and combine it with a bit of additional milk.
They add acid, then gently heat it all up. Very fine, soft, unstructured curds will form under this method, making the whey appear cloudy or turbid.
Finally, the cheesemakers drain the liquid through a porous cloth or small mold. The tiny curds that stay behind are unable to “knit” or combine.
They will remain small individual pieces that move and slide against one another, maintaining a pillowy character.
What’s the Difference Between Ricotta Cheese and Cottage Cheese?
Cottage cheese appears similar to ricotta, but it is made from whole milk, while ricotta is made from whey or a mix of whey and milk.
This means that cottage cheese has a higher casein protein content plus more fat and lactose, forming larger curds that trap lactose sugar and milk fats inside them.
Ricotta curds are composed of a different kind of protein (whey albumin). They stay smaller and more slippery, and they have been mostly depleted of fat and lactose sugar.
Another major difference is that cottage cheese curds are coagulated with the enzyme rennet, while the tiny ricotta curds are not.
Different Kinds of Ricotta Cheese
You are likely to encounter two kinds of ricotta in American grocery stores.“Sturdy” ricotta is sold in a tall plastic mold. It will hold its shape well and is best used for lasagna and pasta fillings.
“Creamy” ricotta is sold in a short, squat plastic tub. It often has cream added to smooth its texture, meaning it is silkier but doesn’t hold its shape. Use this ricotta for baking, pastry fillings, or cold dips.
You may find less-common ricotta offerings outside the United States. Ricotta Salata or “salted ricotta” is salted, pressed, and aged for several months.
Ricotta Cheese Substitutes
When looking for a ricotta substitute, consider which elements of ricotta you want to mimic. Ricotta is spreadable but slightly gritty. Importantly, it does not melt or disintegrate!
This makes it desirable as a filling in lasagna or stuffed pasta but useless as a sauce thickener, for example. Finally, it is mild and gently sweet.
Consider these suggestions:
While these tend to melt into hot applications and don’t work, they will serve well in cold recipes.
It has a larger curd, but it will hold its shape and has a similar mild flavor.
Although it is fattier and creamier, mascarpone will create a similar texture in desserts, and it has a sweet flavor.
This soy-based product has a surprisingly similar texture to ricotta, especially when blended.
What does Ricotta Cheese taste like?
Ricotta is mild, gently sweet, and grainy on the tongue. Seasoned or flavored versions are available, or you can make your own by stirring in dill, basil, or even maple syrup! Let your creativity run wild.
Ricotta Cheese Pairings
Ricotta’s mild nature makes it pairable with both sweet and savory foods. Many people enjoy it with fresh, juicy fruit or on crusty bread with jam or marmalade, while others prefer to pair it with salty crackers and roasted veggies.
Best Ricotta Cheese Brands
Many store-bought ricottas are stabilized with gums and thickeners to prolong their shelf life and prevent moisture from pooling. This makes them more attractive, and it helps them last longer, but it also reduces their performance in baking.
Where to Buy Ricotta Cheese
Because of its popularity, ricotta is available in any supermarket. However, for a luxury experience, find some freshly made from a local deli or cheesemonger!
While packaged ricotta is delicious, nothing compares to the genuinely fresh version.
How Long Does Ricotta Cheese Last?
Store-bought ricotta will be labeled with a “use-by” date, but you can assume an additional three days of flexibility beyond that date.
Once it is opened, use it within five days. Home-made ricotta generally has a shorter shelf life; you’ll want to use it within two days at the most.
If you plan to keep your ricotta around longer, check out our guide for How To Freeze Ricotta.
How to Make Ricotta Cheese
Ricotta is an excellent choice for a novice cheesemaker interested in learning a new skill.
If you do not have whey leftover from other cheeses, feel free to make ricotta directly from whole milk -- you will simply make a richer, fattier, slightly sweeter version of the traditional product.
Jamie Oliver provides an excellent guide.
How to Strain Ricotta Cheese
Strain ricotta with overlapping layers of cheesecloth or butter muslin over a colander. When the curds have collected in a pile, gather the corners of the cheesecloth and tie them together to a kitchen cabinet. Allow the curds to drain into a bowl.
If you plan on enjoying cheesemaking as a serious hobby, ricotta molds are available in the traditional basket shape. Simply spoon the wet curds into the baskets and set each basket onto a rack (such as those used for cooling baked goods) placed over a cookie sheet. This will allow for continuous drainage.
Ricotta's unique characteristics make it a cheese worth experimenting with. It's also one of the few cheeses any novice cook can attempt to make.
If you have any questions or comments, don't hesitate to leave a note below!