In Italian cuisine, it’s common to see creamy ricotta cheese in both savory dishes and sweet recipes. Depending on how you choose to use ricotta cheese in your recipes, we’re about to show you the best way to season it.
All About Ricotta Cheese
Ricotta cheese is in so many delicious recipes we find on the menu at an Italian restaurant. It’s in the Italian dishes we make at home and we’ve bought it in the grocery store time after time. But, do we really know enough about this creamy Italian cheese?
Fresh ricotta cheese is similar to the fresh farmers’ cheese we see made in other cultures. It also has some of the same qualities as cottage cheese but ricotta cheese is smoother and creamier in texture.
Sometimes in certain recipes you’ll see people mention that cottage cheese can be used in place of ricotta if necessary.
There is also a version called ricotta salata. In this version, the excess water is removed and salt is added. It is a cheese that is often compared to the Greek feta.
Ricotta salata adds delicious flavor to lots of pasta dishes. I love adding a little to the Sicilian favorite, Pasta alla Norma.
Ricotta got its name from the way it’s produced. In Italian, the word “cotto” means cooked.
If you’ve ever shopped at a traditional Italian deli you see two types of prosciutto for sale. There is prosciutto “crudo” which means it’s raw or uncooked. It is actually cured and this is the type of prosciutto we are used to when we see the word prosciutto here in the United States.
Prosciutto cotto, on the other hand, is cooked and is similar to what we know as “ham” when we go to the deli.
So, the word “ricotta” means re-cooked or cooked twice. Let’s find out why.
How Ricotta Is Made
You’ll probably be surprised to find out that ricotta is not even a cheese. According to Italian food purveyor, Delallo, “strictly speaking, ricotta is not really considered a cheese.” It is a latticino, which is a byproduct of the cheese-making process.
Traditionally, ricotta was made by reheating the leftover whey produced during the cheesemaking process. When a cheese, such as provolone or low moisture mozzarella is made, there is a liquid left behind after the curds are removed.
This liquid is called whey and it is the main ingredient when making ricotta in the traditional method.
If you’re feeling cheesy, it’s easy to make your own ricotta. It will probably come out with a nicer creamy texture than the old-school way of doing it. This is because you’d be using whole milk instead of whey.
Making Ricotta at Home
Making your own ricotta is actually pretty easy. If you have a few simple ingredients you can make it. No problem at all!
The only ingredients you need in your homemade ricotta cheese recipe are milk and some form of acid.
As we stated above, milk is not the traditional ingredient used to make ricotta recipes, but it is easier to find than whey. While raw milk may be hard to find and is not preferred by the FDA, some say it creates a better finished product.
You could use skim milk, but it won’t have enough milk fat to make the creamy cheese you’re looking for.
The milk that you will most likely find in the grocery store is pasteurized. This means it is brought to an ultra-high temperature to kill off any dangerous bacteria that could be present in the raw milk.
While the raw milk does pose some risk of bacteria, there are cheese makers out there that prefer it due to its natural enzymes and cultures which enhance flavor. It is also going to be a very fresh milk because you’ll source it right from the farmer.
The acid you use can be white vinegar or lemon juice. They will do the trick in allowing the milk to coagulate and form curds. More traditionally, rennet would be used.
Rennet is an enzyme found in the stomach of the animal that produces the milk. That enzyme then turns the milk sugars into acid which then creates curds. Critics and cheesemakers claim rennet will make a tastier finish product than lemon juice or vinegar.
After you choose your milk and acid, put it on the stove and bring it to 185 degrees. Then hold it there for about 20 minutes.
Now, line a large colander with cheesecloth and spoon the curds into the colander. Allow the excess water to drain off of the curds until you are happy with the moisture content.
When enough excess liquid has been drained, store it in the refrigerator for up to 2 days.
Where ricotta is made
Ricotta is made all over Italy and throughout the world. But, if you want to know where ricotta originated, legend has it that it was born in Sicily.
According to Clifford A. Wright, ricotta cheese was originally made in Sicily by milk farmers. These farmers made the ricotta from sheep and cow milk depending on the animals available.
I believe it because there are so many dishes you come across in Sicily that have ricotta cheese. I specifically remember this one dish that had eggplant, ham, hard boiled eggs, tomato sauce and ricotta. It was baked in the oven…a cross between eggplant parmesan and lasagna.
Whoever came up with that recipe was a genius!
Today ricotta is not just made in Italy, but there are some great versions of this creamy white cheese… if it’s a cheese… right here in the United States. I actually love a version that is called New York Style ricotta. It’s rich and creamy and makes just about every recipe taste awesome.
Look for the brands Polly-O and Calabro. They both make a great product and you can’t go wrong with them.
What is Ricotta Used For?
Ricotta is something I like to have in my refrigerator all of the time. It has so many uses and comes in handy for so many dishes.
If you’re into making Italian dishes at home, you should probably pick up a tub.
Forget about avocado toast. Make ricotta toast for breakfast. Spread it on just like you would with cream cheese. Add some fresh fruits and a generous drizzle of honey and you have the perfect breakfast.
If you’re making pasta dishes, add a dollop of plain ricotta. It’s a great addition to heavy cream and parmesan cheese to make an unbelievable white sauce. Basically you’ll be taking your fettuccine Afredo to the next level.
Ricotta cheese is also one of the main ingredients for so many other very popular dishes. Let’s not forget about Italian pastries.
Popular Dishes That Use Ricotta
Here is a short list of our favorite recipes that call for ricotta. Find a really good whole milk ricotta for the best results.
Classic Italian Lasagna: Make it with creamy ricotta, mozzarella cheese, and romano cheeses. Add some meatballs and Italian sausage for the meat lovers.
At Mortadella Head we take pride in our lasagna recipes. Check out how we make our Buffalo Chicken lasagna. It’s awesome!
And if you don’t feel like cooking today, our Lasagna Bolognese is another great dish you should try sometimes.
Eggplant Involtini: Fry some thin eggplant slices in olive oil and stuff them with ricotta. Bake in the oven with tomato sauce for a great appetizer or main course.
Manicotti: Saute some ground beef and mix it with ricotta and parmesan. Take a fresh pasta sheet and stuff it with this mixture before you bake it in the oven with tomato sauce.
Ricotta gnocchi: Take any leftover ricotta you have in the fridge and mix it with flour to make this light-as-a-feather version of gnocchi.
Lemon Ricotta Cake: If you’re a baker, you’ll understand why adding the ricotta should be in every cake recipe going forward.
Sicilian Cassata: This cake is off the charts. You can find it in Italian bakeries here in the United States, but someday, try to make it over to Sicily to check out the real deal. It’s loaded with everything you shouldn’t be eating if you’re on a diet. It’s got cake, book, candied fruit and really sweet ricotta. It’s so good I can’t stop thinking about the last one I tried. There has to be a secret ingredient that I don’t know about.
Cannoli: These are on everyone’s list of favorite desserts. That little fried tube filled with sweet ricotta cheese, studded with chocolate chips and dusted with powdered sugar. If you’re ever in Boston, check out Mike’s Pastry on Hanover Street in the North End to see just how long people will wait in line. I guess a good quality, fresh Italian cheese gets people excited.
The next time you’re having a dinner party, spend some time on our blog to find some of the best ricotta cheese recipes out there!
How To Season Ricotta Cheese
We know ricotta is delicious on its own and you can eat it by itself with a spoon. However, for a lot of recipes, using the right ricotta cheese mixture can take a recipe from good to great.
I suggest keeping it simple by adding fresh parsley, parmesan cheese, and tomato sauce. I like adding the sauce because it make the ricotta more flavorful and the liquid from the sauce makes it creamier.
You can also add garlic powder, black pepper, fresh basil, or shredded mozzarella cheese for an added boost of flavor.
For desserts, there are so many delicious ways to flavor your ricotta. Try using lemon zest, chocolate chips, maple syrup, or Nutella.
Alternatively, replace the mascarpone in your Tiramisu with a ricotta layer. The versatile ricotta cheese will soak up whatever coffee-flavored liquor you decide to use.
If you’re making cannoli, powdered sugar is common when trying to get a sweet taste from your ricotta.
That’s all for today. Now go season your ricotta with the ingredients you like the most and make the next culinary masterpiece!