Ricotta is not a cheese, but it is impossible not to think of the world of cheese without also thinking of the unique creaminess of ricotta.
The name ‘ricotta’ comes from the Latin ‘recocta’ meaning ‘twice cooked’. This means that it is obtained by heating the residual whey from cheese coagulation and not the curd, as is the case with cheese. Hence, it is a dairy product.
Despite this, in common practice, ricotta is served, consumed, and used just like any other cheese.
Origins and processing
Ricotta has very ancient origins: it is documented both in the Egyptian civilisation and amongst the Sumerians and is even mentioned in the Odyssey. Polyphemus’s cave, in fact, was dedicated to the production of this dairy product! When Odysseus enters the cave, Polyphemus is intent on processing the ‘white’ and ‘curdled’ milk.
You are already checking through your schoolbooks, aren’t you?
Like so many artisanal products, shepherds’ habits were born to ensure that nothing went to waste. So, the whey left over from cheese production is heated, allowing the milk proteins to thicken. The white lumps that are formed are removed with a skimmer and put to drain in the typical baskets in which ricotta has always been made.
Because of these ‘recovery’ origins, ricotta has always been made from all types of milk, thus leading to a great variety of tastes and textures.
A dairy product for all Italy
The deep rootedness of ricotta in our eating habits is testified by the many types that have obtained protected designation recognitions. There are, in fact, two PDO ricottas and no less than 73 PAT (traditional Italian food products) ones, for a total of 75 types of ricotta which are officially ‘recognised’ in 19 regions of Italy.
The first ricotta to be granted Protected Designation of Origin status was Ricotta Romana, made from the full-fat milk of sheep raised on natural pastures solely in the Lazio region. The texture (very fine) and flavour (distinctly sweet) distinguish Ricotta Romana from other types of ricotta, absolutely making it one of the most popular varieties.
The second PDO comes from Campania and it is not by chance that it is the same land where Mozzarella di Bufala Campana PDO is produced. This PDO variety, in fact, originates from the very first whey of mozzarella production. The texture is grainier than the Roman variety, and the regulations state that it can also be produced lactose-free.
Among PAT-labelled ricottas, which are niche products linked to very specific territories, the variety of textures and maturations is truly vast, ranging from the more classic creamy/grainy ricottas, smoked products, and cacioricotta with a semi-hard consistency.
Since these are small local productions, it is not unusual to spot big differences within the same PAT product. This is because there are so many variables that can modify the final product. For example, Stazzo ricotta, a PAT of Abruzzo produced from the milk of animals that live, precisely, in mountain stazzi (masonry constructions that comprise the shepherd’s dwelling, an enclosure for the animals and a room for the processing of milk). Here, production conditions are very precarious, and, for this reason, it is not possible to outline a standardised organoleptic profile.
Among the many and very special PAT ricottas, we mention Testa di Morto, produced in Sardinia from sheep’s milk, which has a semi-hard consistency and a round shape; Ricotta Salaprese, typical of some provinces of Campania, with a hard consistency and only used grated for cooking (try it in this Maccheroni with aubergines, cherry tomatoes and salted ricotta recipe; Ricotta Infornata, typical of some northern areas of Sicily, created to avoid wasting the heat of the ovens turned on to bake bread…
How to eat ricotta and what goes with it
The creamy consistency and freshness typical of ricotta make it one of the most widely used dairy products not only on its own, but also in cooking recipes. First, the many traditional desserts whose main ingredient is ricotta cheese, like the classic ricotta Ciambellone cake. Many prefer the Roman ricotta for its distinct sweetness, but traditional desserts from Campania like the Pastiera favour buffalo ricotta.
Ricotta is also perfect in pasta dishes, like stuffed pasta. Again, a great Italian classic are Ravioli stuffed with ricotta and spinach, to try for a quick and tasty Sunday lunch.
Also ideal for savoury pies (add it to the mixture for the Savory pie with asparagus and cherry tomatoes according to our chef’s instructions), meatballs and much more, and even appetisers, preferably with raw vegetables. In short, ricotta is one of the most widely used products in home cooking, perfect to blend many ingredients and to lend creaminess.
And wine?The sweeter and fresher ricottas go best with light, fruity white wines, but semi-hard ricotta and cacioricotta go well with reds.