When you think of cheese, you may picture long strands of melted goodness that makes a topping or a filling worth remembering. And while melted cheeses add flavor and character to a lot of dishes, many non-melting cheeses are just as special. Ricotta cheese falls into this category, and even though it doesn't melt, it has character to spare.
How It's Made
Ricotta is Italian for "re-cooked." In the traditional method of making ricotta, Italian cheese makers use whey that has been left behind during the process of making mozzarella and provolone cheese. They let the whey ferment up to an entire day; then heat it up so the proteins in the whey make small curds. Much of the modern ricotta you buy is made by combining fresh milk with the whey, which results in a creamy texture that is a little bit grainy, with a sweet flavor. A different variation of the cheese known as ricotta salata has gone through a three-month aging process after being pressed and salted. Ricotta salata is more firm and drier than traditional ricotta. It also is a non-melting cheese, but it shouldn't be substituted for regular ricotta because the characteristics are too different.
Why It Won't Melt
Cheeses that are curdled with rennet, such as mozzarella or provolone, remain malleable and melt, but cheeses with a higher acidity tend not to melt; ricotta falls into this category. In cheeses that are curdled with acid like ricotta, the proteins in the cheese become resistant to heat, and it won't melt. It will heat and soften, but it will always retain its structure and won't become liquified or stretchy.
How to Use It
Even though ricotta won't melt, it's still good in dishes when it's heated. Ricotta is commonly added to stuffed pastas or lasagna, and it's a good pizza topping. You can bake, fry or grill ricotta, or serve it warm on by itself, drizzled with honey or add it to a salad. Spread cold ricotta on crackers or crumble it in salads. Sometimes it is used as a substitute for cottage cheese.
Choosing and Storing Ricotta
You can find ricotta in the supermarket in either whole milk or partly skim varieties. Look at the expiration date and choose a cheese that will give you more than enough time to use it. It will last for several days in the refrigerator after it's opened. Look for fresh ricotta in a specialty Italian grocery store. The fresh ricotta has a more complex flavor, but the shelf-life is just a couple of days in the fridge; buy it shortly before you intend to use it.
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