Ricotta: The Best Known Cheese That Isn’t, Technically, Cheese

One of the things I love most about the world of cheese is that it’s jam-packed with recipes and styles that evolved in very specific historical and cultural contexts. Swiss-style cheeses, for example, taste sweeter than Cheddars in part because salt was a precious commodity that couldn’t be easily transported into the Alpine mountains were this style was invented. Instead, the curd was cooked during the cheese making process to expel moisture; the by-product of little salt and long cooking is a concentrated, sweet, nutty flavor.

Ricotta is another fascinating example of specific conditions, in a specific time and place, yielding a singular cheese. Or should I say a sort-of cheese. Because ricotta, you see, isn’t traditionally made from milk, and so it isn’t technically cheese. Its name means recooked, and historically ricotta was made by recooking the whey left over from cheese making in southern Italy (particularly Sicily, followed by Sardinia). 

I think of ricotta every time I hear the nursery rhyme about Little Miss Muffet, sitting on her tuffet, eating her curds and whey. In my mind, Little Miss is chowing down on a big bowl of ricotta. Whey is the liquid by-product of cheese making. With the addition of acid (such as vinegar or lemon juice) and heat, the residual protein left in whey will curdle and rise to the top of the vat where it can be gently skimmed off. Fresh, snowy white and delicate, its flavor is clean and milky with a dimension of sweetness that comes from high heat. Ricotta is the ultimate example of recycling waste into something hearty and delicious. Its only shortcoming is that, as an unaged rindless cheese, it’s extremely perishable. For this reason, it was historically eaten by the shepherds who made it, squeezing every last bite out of their animals’ milk.

While Italians and cheese folks generally agree that the tastiest ricotta is made from sheep or buffalo whey, the most commonly found ricotta comes from cows. Today, nearly all ricotta is produced from a combination of whey and milk rather than whey alone. Because ricotta is such a simple food, its ingredients and production have a profound impact on final texture and flavor. And since ricotta is a critical ingredient in classic Italian recipes from lasagna to cannoli to manicotti, the ricotta matters!

Ricotta comes in whole milk, part-skim and skim versions. Don’t bother with the reduced or fat-free options. They tend to be grainy and watery when cooked and they won’t give you the thick, rich concentration you wanted when you reached for ricotta in the first place.

The best ricotta should be lush and creamy; neither grainy nor curdy like cottage cheese. Smooth, dense ricotta will stay that way during cooking, and a big part of that desirable texture comes from full fat. Another influence on superior texture is the way the ricotta is made. Traditionally, ricotta curds are skimmed and scooped by hand. While that doesn’t happen with today’s supermarket ricotta, some producers employ special equipment that pumps the curd more gently, keeping it plump and intact. 

In terms of taste, sweeter as opposed to more acidic (tart or tangy) ricotta is generally preferable and more versatile. It’s also truer to the traditional flavor of pure whey-high heat recooked ricotta. It’s what makes ricotta a beautiful counterbalance to the acidic tang of tomato sauce in lasagna and the ideal filling for powdered sugar-dusted cannoli. For both texture and flavor, there is no better supermarket choice than Bel Gioioso Ricotta con Latte (Whole Milk). It is made with a combination of sweeter whey (left over from mozzarella production) and whole milk, and is packaged using equipment that moves the ricotta more slowly and gently, preserving the curds’ fragile texture.

If you’re feeling adventurous, ricotta can be made quite simply at home. While most recipes call for milk and cream (as opposed to any whey) the delight of a warm, milky bowl drizzled with honey may outstrip any frustration about mild wateriness during cooking. 

Homemade Ricotta


1 c. heavy cream

4 c. whole milk

½ tsp. salt

2 tblsp. White vinegar or freshly squeezed lemon juice

Cheesecloth or coffee filters


Combine cream, milk and salt in saucepan over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil.

While mixture is heating, line a wire sieve with cheesecloth or coffee filters.

Once boiling, add vinegar or lemon juice and reduce heat to low. Simmer, stirring constantly, for 2 minutes. Mixture should curdle immediately with little curd bits floating to the top of the pan. 

Pour mixture into lined sieve and let it drain for a minimum of 20 minutes and up to an hour for a thicker consistency. Ricotta can be refrigerated for up to 2 days.