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Ricotta cheese is a product of the heat-acid coagulation of proteins in sweet whey. It is white, grainy, soft, moist, sweet, and slightly creamy, depending on how much cream is added to the curd. The name “ricotta” is derived from the Latin word “recocta,” which means recooked or cooked twice.

Perhaps the first reference to ricotta cheese was made during the years 170–230 C.E. by the Greek writer Athenaeus who wrote about a soft Sicilian cheese; however, some believe that ricotta was brought to Sicily by Arabs between the years 965 and 1072. An ancient Greek cheese called oxygala is believed to have Persian origins, probably supporting the theory of an Arabic origin of ricotta. Depending on how the term “cheese” is defined, some people would define ricotta not as a cheese but as a secondary product of cheesemaking.

Popular Varieties

Ricotta di Bufala Campana and Ricotta Romana are popular Italian varieties protected by the European designation of origin (PDO); they are made from buffalo’s and sheep’s milk whey respectively, and both have a characteristic delicate and sweet flavor. Most Italian ricotta is made from sweet whey derived from the production of pasta filata type cheese such as mozzarella and provolone.

Production Process

  • Heating the whey or whey-milk mixture to 176–185°F (80–85°C).
  • Adding an acidulant (citric acid, vinegar, or lemon juice).
  • Holding the acidified curd at high temperature.
  • Scooping the curd out in a perforated container.

Most ricotta around the world is sold fresh while it is perfectly moist and creamy and its flavor is bright and sweet; however, a few varieties of this cheese are subjected to further processing to extend the shelf life as in the case of ricotta salata (pressed, salted, and dried) and ricotta affumicata (smoked).

Historical Context

The production of ricotta in the Italian peninsula dates back to the Bronze Age. Ceramic vessels called milk boilers started to appear frequently and were designed to boil milk at high temperatures. The production of rennet-coagulated cheese overtook the production of fresh whole-milk cheeses during the first millennium BC, leading to a large supply of sweet whey as a byproduct. Cheesemakers then started using a mixture of whey and milk to make the traditional ricotta as it is known today.

Modern Variants

Ricotta salata is a pressed, salted, dried, and aged variety of the cheese. Ricotta infornata (lit. 'baked ricotta') is produced by placing a large lump of soft ricotta in the oven until it develops a brown, lightly charred crust. Ricotta affumicata (lit. 'smoked ricotta') is produced by placing a lump of soft ricotta in a smoker until it develops a grey crust and acquires a charred wood scent. Ricotta forte, also known as ricotta scanta, is produced from leftovers of any combination of cow, goat, or sheep milk ricotta, allowed to age for about a year, resulting in a soft and creamy brown paste with a very pungent and piquant taste.

Common Culinary Uses

Like mascarpone in northern Italian cuisine, ricotta is a favorite component of many Italian desserts, such as cheesecakes and cannoli. Combined with eggs and cooked grains, then baked firm, ricotta is also a main ingredient in Neapolitan pastiera, one of Italy's many "Easter pies". Ricotta is also commonly used in savory dishes, including pasta, calzone, stromboli, pizza, manicotti, lasagne, and ravioli.

Similar Non-Italian Cheeses

In the United States, American ricotta is almost always made of cow's milk whey, as opposed to Italian ricotta which is typically made from the whey of sheep (Ricotta Romana), cow, goat, or Italian water buffalo milk (Ricotta di Bufala Campana). Equivalent whey cheeses include Requesón in Latin America, Romanian Urdă, Anari from Cyprus, Lor from Turkey, and Manouri, Anthotyros, and Mizithra from Greece.

Important Facts

Country of Origin Italy
Milk Type Cow's, Sheep's, Buffalo's
Milk Treatment Whey
Fat Content Varies
Moisture Content High
Rind None
Texture Soft, moist
Flavor Sweet, slightly creamy
Aroma Mild
Colors White
Forms Grainy soft mass
Age Fresh
Rennet Type Animal or Microbial

Best Foods to Serve with Ricotta Cheese

Recommended Pairings for Ricotta Cheese

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