You may have eaten ricotta cheese many times without even realising it, as it is an ingredient in many Italian pasta sauces. So even in a supermarket lasagne, for instance, scan the ingredients and you may well come across it. It’s a prominent feature of a number of Italian desserts as well, which its light, smooth texture and delicate, slightly sweet flavour makes it perfect for.
Ricotta is actually a secondary product made from the milk whey that is left over from the production of other cheese, such as, in Italy, mozzarella. For this reason it was often eaten by shepherds and cheese makers as a way of getting the most out of the leftovers when they’d been making cheese to sell. Ricotta tends to have quite a short shelf life, so in the olden days if often didn’t make it to market.
There is evidence, in the form of paintings and archaeological finds, of ricotta having been made at least four thousands years ago. Pots that were used to boil milk have been discovered from this period, particularly around the area that is present day Italy, and there is evidence from paintings of people in Ancient Rome making and consuming ricotta, so it is a very traditional staple in that part of the world. What is fascinating and rather charming is that the actual process of producing the cheese has hardly changed in thousands of years.
The process of making ricotta begins with making another cheese. In some cases, the ricotta is named after the cheese from which its whey derives. So for example, you can have buffalo mozzarella ricotta. As discussed in other articles, the process of making cheese involves separating the curds from the whey in milk. For example, in traditional feta cheese, the curds are hung in a cloth sack and the whey allowed to drain out, with the remaining curds then aged to for the cheese. So ricotta is in some ways of getting the most from this leftover byproduct. However this is not to suggest that the product is second-rate or just leftovers. In fact, as ricotta is made by coagulating the proteins in whey, and as most of the proteins have already been removed during the original cheese making process, ricotta actually requires a relatively large amount of whey to make a given amount. For this reason it can be a little pricey in the shops.
Once the whey has been removed and the curds are off being turned into mozzarella (or whatever), the whey is then allowed to ferment. Fermentation is a natural process and all that is needed is to let the whey sit at room temperature for up to a day. As it ferments, it produces cultures that are acidic in nature – this is what helps give cheese its sharp, tangy flavours and it also helps in preservation. However, as mentioned ricotta has a lower protein content than many cheeses and so it does not produce so much of these cultures. This is partly why it is so perishable in its natural state. To encourage this newly acified substance to precipitate out it is heated, almost to boiling point. This is where the name ricotta comes from: it literally means “recooked”, and that is kind of what it is, a recooked cheese product.
This heated whey is then allowed to cool. The low pH and high heat means that curds have now formed, and these are passed through a piece of fine cloth, giving the delicate, smooth product that is ricotta. And that’s it, it’s ready to eat. However, further processing is sometimes carried out, both to change the flavour and texture and also to extend the shelf life, and different parts of Italy have different traditional approaches to this.
Preservation methods include salting, smoking and baking. When being treated in this way, other flavours can be added. For example when smoked with oak or chestnut chips, this imparts a lovely deep, smoky flavour that can be further enhanced with herbs or dried berries. In addition to smoking, salting and baking, a further preservation method is (yet more) fermentation. It can be left to ferment for many months, provided salt is added and that the ricotta is regularly stirred to inhibit mould growth. This results in a very soft, rich and strongly flavoured cheese that is delicious spread on bruschetta, for instance, or stirred into soups and sauces for a real umami kick.
Alternatively ricotta might be salted and dried, when it then can be grated or shaved much in the same way as parmesan.
The cheese has certain nutritional aspects that mean some people are particularly drawn to it. Like all cheeses it is a low-carbohydrate food, so obviously there is the appeal to people on low-carb diets, but it also appeals to people with milk allergies who may be unable to eat other cheeses. This is because the heating process described above denatures the proteins, meaning they no longer trigger certain common allergies. It is also lower in fat than many cheeses, so a natural choice for those on low fat diets, either for health or weight loss. For instance, it can be a good substitute for mascarpone in recipes for people looking to trim back on the fact. It is also lower in protein though, which athletes and bodybuilders, for instance, may wish to bear in mind. That said, the protein in ricotta is whey protein, as opposed to casein protein. Whey protein is often favoured by bodybuilders and athletes who need to build muscle, such as sprinters and boxers, as it is absorbed faster to help repair and build muscle after exercise. When engaging in exercise that involves lifting weights, the muscle is placed under stress and some of the fibres actually break under the strain. The body needs protein to repair this tissue, and in doing so, if the weight was a heavy one, it not only repairs the muscle but adds to it, so that it may be better able to lift the weight next time. This rather clever biological process is how muscles grow from exercise, and ricotta with its good whey protein content can therefore be an excellent part of a weight lifter’s diet. So even though it is lower in protein overall, compared to many cheeses, it is higher in what to bodybuilders is the “better” protein. Useful to know if you’re into that sort of thing.
Dishes that use ricotta to beautiful effect include spinach and ricotta cannelloni, stuffed ravioli and any number of gorgeous cheesecakes. Bon appetit.