Ricotta is a fresh whey cheese made from sheep’s or cow’s milk that was created in Italy and that is common in baking and Italian cuisine. Whey is a by-product of cheese-making, a liquid that remains after the fatty curds that will form the cheese have been separated. Ricotta is made by reheating the whey until it forms its own curds. Similar to cottage cheese, it is light in texture and can be incorporated into traditionally calorie-dense dishes like lasagna and cheesecake to lower the fat and calorie content. It is considered nutritious because it is low in fat, yet dense with a high-quality form of protein, the same form of protein that is popular in protein supplements.
While milk cheeses are made by curdling animal milk with an acid and then separating the curd from the liquid, ricotta only uses the whey liquid left behind. Unlike traditional cheeses that are aged, ricotta is consumed fresh and as such has a very short shelf life. It is like cottage cheese in appearance and texture but is somewhat sweeter in taste. Both are considered healthy as they are relatively low in fat and high in protein, particularly those made in part from skim milk.
Regular cheese contains the bulk of the fat from the milk as well as casein protein, which makes up 80 percent of the protein found in the milk. Ricotta, on the other hand, contains only about 13 percent fat in skim form. It also contains whey protein, which makes up 20 percent of the protein in milk. Whey is known as a high-quality protein, meaning that it supplies a large number of the essential amino acids that humans require in their diet. This makes it the most widely sold type of protein in powder and other supplement form.
Since ricotta is lower in fat and higher in protein than other creamy cheeses, like cream cheese and mascarpone, it may be substituted for these cheeses when cooks want to lower the calorie and fat content. Many traditional Italian foods like lasagna and cannoli are already made using ricotta.
Some dishes, however, rely on thicker cheeses like cream cheese and therefore can be made healthier by replacing some or all of the cheese with ricotta. Cheesecake, for instance, can be made entirely with ricotta. It will have an airier, springier texture than traditional cheesecake but will be much lower in fat.