Ricotta cheese, a common ingredient in Italian cuisine, is a creamy and soft cheese with a light, mild flavor. Native to Italy, it is made from the whey that is produced during the cheese-making process. Although it is available in a variety of forms and textures, ricotta cheese is usually prepared as a semi-solid white cheese dip, spreadable cream cheese, or a slightly firmer texture for crumbling and grating. Ricotta cheese is widely used in Italian cooking and baking, as it adds creaminess and richness to dishes. Its mild flavor blends well with other ingredients, making it a beneficial addition to many recipes.
Originating from Italy, ricotta cheese dates back to the 11th century. Traditionally, it was made from the curds leftovers of cheese production using sheep’s milk, goat’s milk, cow’s milk, or a combination of these milks. In older times, the cheese was prepared by heating the mixture of leftovers and milk over an open flame before cooling it to form the cheese. Today, most ricotta is produced on a larger scale and is made from whey collected from various cheese-making processes.
Ricotta is a type of whey cheese that is most distinguishable from other cheeses due to its airy and fuzzy texture, as well as its softer consistency. Ricotta is a fresh cheese, meaning it is not aged like other types of cheese and can spoil quickly if not refrigerated. While many varieties are available, ricotta is generally made with milk, salt, and an acid, such as vinegar or lemon juice, which acts to curdle the cheese and give it a unique texture.
There are three primary types of ricotta cheese — cow’s milk ricotta, sheep’s milk ricotta, and goat’s milk ricotta — all of which have distinct flavors and textures. Cow's milk ricotta is by far the most popular, as it has a mild flavor, creamy texture, and is most economical. Sheep's milk ricotta is denser, has a bolder flavor, and is usually the most expensive variety. Goat’s milk ricotta is sometimes sweet and nutty in flavor and has a smooth texture.
Ricotta cheese is beloved for its versatility and mild flavor and can be used as a stand-alone snack, in a variety of pasta dishes, in baked goods and desserts, or to top salads and pizzas. It can also be used in a variety of other traditional Italian dishes, such as the classic lasagna, manicotti, and cannoli. Ricotta cheese is a popular topping for crostini and is commonly used in gelato, smoothies, and cheese-stuffed breads and pastries.
When using ricotta cheese in baking, it is important to note that ricotta’s high-moisture content can make pastries dense and heavy, so it is best to use in recipes that have dry ingredients to offset the moisture of the cheese. When using ricotta cheese in savory recipes, salt can be used to enhance its subtle flavor. Ricotta pairs exceptionally well with fresh fruits, such as pears and pineapples, adding sweetness and creaminess to the dish. Additionally, ricotta cheese works very well in cheese and veggie dishes.
Ricotta cheese is a cooling and refreshing finish to any meal and can be served alongside other Italian cheeses, such as Parmesan and mozzarella. Ricotta is known for being a healthier alternative to some other cheese, as it has no cholesterol, relatively low fat, and low sodium content. Ricotta cheese can be found in most grocery stores, but for a top-quality ricotta made with fresh milk, visit specialty cheese shops.
Ricotta cheese is a culinary staple in Italian cuisine and is sure to add a distinct richness and flavor to any dish. Its versatility ensures that it can be used in a vast array of dishes, both sweet and savory.