Ricotta is an Italian whey cheese.
It is made from sheep, cow, goat, or Italian water buffalo milk whey left over from the production of other cheeses.
Although typically referred to as cheese, ricotta technically is not a cheese because it is made from a cheese by-product.
Ricotta is an Italian word that means ‘recooked’ – it describes the cheese made when whey is cooked again.
The original ricotta is made of whey with the addition of a small amount of milk, but more recently ricotta has been made of whole milk as well.
Ricotta curds are creamy white in appearance, and slightly sweet in taste. The fat content changes depending on the brand and the type of milk used.
Fresh ricotta can be subject to extra processing to produce variants which have a much longer shelf life. These production methods include salting, baking, smoking, and further fermentation.
Ricotta cheese, like all types of cheese, is a great source of calcium and provides a range of other essential nutrients including vitamin A, riboflavin, niacin, vitamin B12, Vitamin K, iodine, phosphorus, selenium and zinc.
The production of ricotta in the Italian peninsula dates back to the Bronze Age.
In the second millennium BC, ceramic vessels called milk boilers started to appear frequently and were apparently unique to the peninsula. These were designed to boil milk at high temperatures and prevent the milk from boiling over. The fresh acid-coagulated cheeses produced with these boilers were probably made with whole milk.
However, the production of rennet-coagulated cheese overtook the production of fresh whole-milk cheeses during the first millennium BC. Bronze cheese graters found in the graves of the Etruscan elite prove that hard-grating cheeses were popular with the aristocracy.
Cheese graters were also commonly used in ancient Roman kitchens. Unlike the fresh acid-coagulated cheese, aged rennet-coagulated cheese could be preserved for much longer.
The increased production of rennet-coagulated cheese led to a large supply of sweet whey as a byproduct. Cheesemakers then started using a new recipe, which used a mixture of whey and milk to make the traditional ricotta as it is known today.
The ancient Romans made ricotta, but writers on agriculture such as Cato the Elder, Marcus Terentius Varro, and Columella do not mention it. A likely reason is that ricotta was not profitable because its very short shelf life did not allow distribution to urban markets. Ricotta was most likely consumed by the shepherds who made it. Even so, evidence from paintings and literature indicates that ricotta was known and likely eaten by Roman aristocrats as well.
Ceramic milk boilers were still used by Apennine shepherds to make ricotta in the 19th century AD. Today, metal milk boilers are used, but production methods have changed little since ancient times.
Ricotta is the most important and popular whey cheese.
In the United States, American ricotta is almost always made of cow’s milk whey, as opposed to Italian ricotta which is typically made from the whey of sheep, cow, goat, or Italian water buffalo milk.
Ricotta is somewhat similar in texture to some cottage cheese variants, though considerably lighter.