What Is Ricotta?
Ricotta is a fresh, soft, Italian cheese with a small curd and a light, mild flavor. It is considered a fresh cheese because it does not undergo an ageing or ripening process to further develop the flavor.
How Is Ricotta Made?
Ricotta differs from other cheeses because it is made from whey, which is usually a byproduct of the cheese making process. Liquid whey is heated to a high temperature at which point an acid is introduced to denature and curdle the whey proteins. The resulting curd is ricotta cheese. This process of re-cooking the whey after the initial cheese making process is where ricotta derived its Italian name, which translates to "re-cooked."
Varieties of Ricotta
Most ricotta cheese sold in the United States is made from cow’s milk although sheep and goat milk ricottas can also be found. Two varieties of cow’s milk ricotta that are popular in the U.S. are whole and part skim. Whole milk ricotta has a fat content of approximately 13% while part skim contains about 8% fat. Higher fat ricottas generally have a smoother, creamier texture.
Because ricotta is not aged and generally does not contain added salt, it has a very light and sweet flavor reminiscent of fresh milk. The curd is small and almost granular, which traps air and provides a light, fluffy texture. Ricotta has a high moisture content compared to most cheeses, which helps it stay soft and creamy but results in a shorter shelf life.
Uses of Ricotta
The fresh, mild flavor of ricotta provides a blank canvas for both savory and sweet dishes. Ricotta is a traditional filling for savory dishes like lasagna and stuffed manicotti but it is also used extensively in desserts like cannoli, cheesecake and cookies. The light, creamy texture also makes ricotta ideal for dips and sauces.
Availability of Ricotta
Cow's milk ricotta is readily available in most grocery stores throughout the United States and retails anywhere from two to five dollars for a 15 oz. container. Artisanal ricotta or ricotta made from sheep or goat's milk may be found in specialty or ethnic grocery stores. Ricotta can easily be made at home and requires only a few ingredients and tools.