What is Ricotta?

Recycling, when you come right down to it. It’s a type of cheese that’s classically made from the waste whey leftover from the manufacture of firmer cheeses. It can be made from cow’s milk, sheep’s milk…goat, buffalo, you get the picture. In Italy there are dozens of styles of ricotta. However what’s common to them all is the method by which they’re made.

You need not be familiar with the intricacies of cheese manufacturing — merely Little Miss Muffet — to know that the cheese making process yields two main components: curds and whey. The curds are what you get when you combine rennet (enzymes) with warm or hot milk or cream. The rennet causes the curd-making proteins known as caseins to draw together into clumps. In the process they trap a good deal of the fat. The masses this clumping action creates are called curds. They’re skimmed off, drained, salted, put in forms and ripened into the firm cheeses we know.

So what about the whey, then? It’s the milky liquid that’s left behind after the curds are skimmed off. It contains proteins of its own, only those proteins aren’t effected by rennet. They are however effected by a couple of other things: heat and acid. When heated the whey proteins, especially those that go by the name of lactoglobulin, uncoil. If the environment is acidic, those lactoglobulin molecules become attracted to one another. The result is again a bunch of clumps that trap remaining fat and form curds. However because whey proteins are a good deal smaller than their casein cousins, the curds they make are quite a bit smaller.

Are they still good eatin’? You bet, and a great way to extract additional food from what would otherwise be a waste product (kudos to whomever figured out this re-cooking “ri-cotta” process, oh so long ago).

Yet all this raises a question: if you’re not making ricotta out of leftover whey, is it still ricotta? I believe the answer is an unequivocal yes. Even if your starting point is a richer milk mixture, you’re still making the same whey (not casein) cheese via the same heat-and-acid method. The curd size is the same, only the fat content is higher. That’s a difference, however to argue that a homemade ricotta isn’t ricotta because it has a higher fat content is like arguing that whole milk isn’t milk because you’ve always made do with skim.

Of course it’s fair to argue which one is more traditional. It’s even fairer to argue which one you prefer. But just because Italian peasants were forced to make their ricotta with leftover, fat-depleted whey, why must we? It doesn’t follow, especially when higher fat ricotta scores quite a bit higher on the deliciousness scale.

19 thoughts on “What is Ricotta?”

  1. Thanks for covering this. When Deb posted instructions on Smitten Kitchen, there was quite a debate about whether it was ricotta or not. I assume that many cheeses are named after the process by which they’re created, not just the origin or ingredients. Looks like ricotta follows this naming convention.

    Homemade rich ricotta on fresh-baked French bread, with homemade peach preserves — that was my favorite summer snack last year.

    1. Hey Kim!

      That’s my belief at least. I don’t know of any instances in which cheeses are designated by their fat content. There are names like “brie double-crème”, “camembert triple-crème” and such, but “brie” or “camembert” always precede the butterfat indicator. I’m not a cheese expert, but I believe most if not all cheeses are designated by the process that creates them, not the relative richness of the source ingredients (which can vary).

      Thanks for the comment!

      – Joe

      1. Just a side note. Most cheeses are regulated heavily (especially Cheddar) by their composition. In order to be called Cheddar in the USA it must have a maximum moisture content of 39%. Otherwise it is not a true Cheddar but rather “reduced fat” etc. Regulations can be perused here.

        1. Understood, Jessie. That a good point…there are plenty of regulations out there governing cheese sold at the commercial level. Thanks very much!

          – Joe

    1. Hey Chris! A very interesting question. I have heard of buttermilk cheese before, but have never seen a recipe. There’s protein-o-plenty in buttermilk, also some fat. As I mentioned in this post, lactoglobulin will coagulate when heated so long as there’s acid present, and most buttermilk is acidic. Thus it follow that if you simmered buttermilk for a while you’d get curds. I dunno…game to try it?

      – Joe

      1. funny you should ask, I just took delivery of a Thermomix (don’t know if you have them in the good ole US of A) which I plan to whip up some butter in some time soon, so I’ll keep you posted!


        1. I am aware of those…we do have them here. Interesting pieces of equipment. And yes, please do keep me informed of the results!

          – Joe

      2. Buttermilk should work okay, but the culture has had a lot longer to work so you will probably have a more strongly flavored ricotta than you might like.

  2. I am a huge cheese nerd and I’ve been making the stuff for years. Tomorrow I’m going to make a batch of ricotta like you make here to put on pizzas, since I’m a cheapskate.

    For what it’s worth I think you’re making ricotta too, or something near enough as to not make a difference.

    You did point out that traditional ricotta not only has less fat, but is entirely composed of protein that doesn’t denature when exposed to rennet, so there are more differences than just the fat content.

    Still what you’ve got here tastes awfully similar to ricotta so who really cares?

    1. If anyone is curious, technically this is a pretty traditional queso blanco (or queso fresco, I’m not sure there’s a difference)

      They’re both acid-precipitated from uncultured whole milk.

      Makes a killer chile relleno in addition to what you’re doing with it here 🙂

      Thanks for all of the cool cheese posts!

    1. Thanks Marissa! As you’ve seen there’s still been some debate here, but knowing the process a bit better helps to keep that debate streamlined. Cheers,

      – Joe

  3. What about the liquid left over when you strain homemade yogurt? Would that work?

    1. Interesting idea there, Rachelle! It would probably curdle inso something…exactly what, I’m not sure!


      – Joe

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