Ricotta is a type of whey cheese, developed in Italy but manufactured and sold all over the world. It is a very flexible and delicious dairy product, starring in lasagna, cannoli, and many other delicious dishes that require the use of a soft, mild cheese product. The name actually means "to cook again" in Italian, a reference to the way in which ricotta is manufactured. The cheese is also highly nutritious eaten plain, although somewhat bland in flavor.
The whey drained from cheese while it is being made is recycled to make ricotta. Most cheese making involves curdling milk, draining the whey, and scooping the curds into forms. The whey is usually discarded, although sometimes it is retained for animal fodder or starting other cheeses. When making ricotta, this whey is heated again, to bring the proteins in the whey to the surface. As the whey is heated, vinegar or another type of acid is added to promote separation, and the temperature is further raised until the lactalbumin, or proteins, rise to the surface. These proteins are drained in very fine cheesecloth for two days and then the cheese is brought to market.
Ricotta is usually a fresh cheese, although some versions such as ricotta salata are molded and aged, and form a unique part of Italian cuisine although they are rarely seen in the United States. The cheese should be eaten quickly, and kept under refrigeration until then. It can also be frozen for future use, and will last frozen for approximately six months. Many recipes call for the cheese, which lends an excellent texture and flavor to a wide variety of dishes.
In general, ricotta is made from cows milk whey, although sheep and goat are used as well. If sheep or goat whey is used, it is clearly labeled to indicate this. In many parts of the world where demand for ricotta is high, it can be made directly from milk although it will tend to be more dry and less creamy. When making it from milk, the milk must be heated before acid is added and the proteins will rise to the surface, just as they do when making traditional ricotta. The mixture can be strained through cheesecloth and allowed to sit for several days.
Ricotta has become very popular and is usually a relatively low fat product, making it ideal for dieters. Some dairies also sell it in a fat free form, although the difference in fat content may not be that significant and the flavor of the normal variety may be preferable.