Ricotta Cheese, A Creamy Italian Classic

Soft, white and delicately sweet, ricotta marries beautifully with dessert pastries or springtime vegetables and it’s the ideal cheese for your favorite Easter recipes.

In the culinary world, there is an unwritten rule that comes from thousands of years of practice and experience: don’t throw anything away that you don’t have to. Ricotta is a classic example. This soft, sweet, white cheese is made from what is left over after making other cheeses. Strictly speaking, ricotta is not really considered a cheese, but a latticino—which means a dairy by-product—just as cow or buffalo milk mozzarellas are. Basically ricotta is made from whey—that is, the watery liquid that remains after cow, sheep or goat cheese is made. In recent years, even buffalo ricotta can be found in the Campania and Puglia regions, where buffalo mozzarella is produced. Used in abundance all over Italy, ricotta—in all its various forms—has played an important part in Italian cucina for centuries.

In the ancient times of the Roman republic, the production of ricotta was regulated by Cato the Elder—a statesman known for his humble origins and practical wisdom. Among other laws, he codified rules for sheep farming and agriculture. In those days, sheep’s milk had several uses: as a part of sacrificial rites; as a beverage; for the production of pecorino cheese—and ricotta. Even back then, the practice of using whey, instead of merely discarding it, already existed. Ricotta, which literally means “recooked” in Italian, was probably accidentally discovered during the production of pecorino. The process for making ricotta is relatively simple: By allowing the whey to ferment one or two days in lukewarm temperatures, it becomes more acidic.
After fermentation, the whey is cooked to almost boiling; afterward, the residual proteins solidify into curds, which are then filtered through a cloth. The result is a product with a consistency similar to cottage cheese, but with a sweet taste.

Cheese making is a real craft—it takes a lot of skill, practice and experience to make a good cheese. Even ricotta, in all its simplicity, follows traditions, rules, and methods. The craft of ricotta cheese making is certainly not exclusive to one region or country. Today, ricotta is made in numerous parts of the world, where its production was unknown until a few years ago. Though fresh ricotta is not so readily available—even in Italian cities it can be hard to find, and outside of Italy, it’s still something of a rarity—it is possible to find tasty commercial ricotta just about everywhere. The commercial versions of ricotta—sold in many parts of the world, as well as in Italy—are very useful in the kitchen, particularly in pastry and pasta dishes. But, there is nothing that can compare to the taste of fresh authentic Italian ricotta.

Made without any additives and naturally low in fat, undoubtedly, the best ricotta you’ll ever experience comes straight from the farm—sold in street markets and local cheese stores all over Italy. Fresh ricotta is readily available in a variety of forms, but the most common types are: ricotta di mucca (cow milk ricotta), ricotta di pecora (sheep milk ricotta), and ricotta mista di mucca e pecora (a mixture of cow and sheep milk ricottas). Cow milk ricotta is more widely consumed in Northern Italy, and sheep ricotta is more prevalent in the central south. Ricotta di capra (goat) and ricotta di bufala (buffalo) also exist but they are a bit harder to come by.

The differences between these ricottas are noteworthy. Cow’s milk ricotta is milder and has a more neutral taste than the other varieties. It’s ideal for the celebrated filled-pasta delicacies of northern Italy—such as, ravioli, tortelloni, agnolotti, savory stuffed crepes—as well as cakes and pastries. In the regions where sheep herding is more widespread—such as in Tuscany, Lazio, Abruzzi, Campania, Puglia, and of course Sardinia, which has the largest sheep farms in all of Italy—naturally, sheep milk ricotta is more prevalent. Each region produces a slightly different tasting milk and cheese. In general, sheep milk ricotta has a slightly richer taste than the cow milk variety.

Ricotta di pecora or ricotta mista is used in a great variety of sauces and pasta recipes, especially those with vegetables such as eggplant, peppers, zucchini and spinach. It’s also ideal for pasta al forno (baked pasta)—as prepared in the central southern regions of Italy—and in torte (pies). Without ricotta di pecora, we wouldn’t have the two marvels of Sicilian patisserie—cannoli and cassata.

One of the most renowned ricotta in Italy is the sheep milk Ricotta Romana (D.O.P.), which has a protected designation of origin. This certifies that it is produced only in the region of Lazio and that strict requirements regarding its method of production are followed. Among the unique aspects of Ricotta Romana are its extremely low fat content and light texture—amazing qualities for a “cheese” (as it’s usually called) derived from whole milk. This distinctive ricotta has a silky smooth, rich consistency, and a delicate flavor with just a hint of sweetness.

    A few other very special types of ricotta should be mentioned, such as the ricotta salata (salted)—a hard, seasoned cheese often used instead of pecorino and grated over pasta; this version is also a great complement for salads. The ricotta al forno or infornata—that is, baked ricotta—can be eaten as is or mixed into pasta dishes. Ricotta affumicata, or smoked ricotta, is another wonderful preparation enhanced with the scent of charred oak and chestnut. Probably the caviar of all ricottas is the one from Puglia, called ricotta scanta—a wonderful artisanal version that requires three months of preparation, resulting in a pungent and very aromatic, beige-colored and creamy ricotta to be spread on bread or over vegetables. It is utterly unique.