Pronunciation: [rih-KAHT-tuh; ree-KOH-tah]
It's thought that ricotta came about in order to use the huge amounts of whey produced by Italy's cheesemaking industry a dilemma causing environmental problems. Ricotta comes from the Latin meaning "recooked," which refers to the most common types of ricotta that use reheated whey. During reheating, protein particles rise to the surface, are skimmed off, strained and placed in perforated molds or baskets to drain further. The resulting rich, fresh cheese is slightly grainy but smoother than cottage cheese. It's white, moist and has a slightly sweet flavor. Of course, ricotta technically isn't a cheese at all but a "dairy product" because neither starter nor rennet is used in the process. Ricotta Romana, also called ricotta gentile, is made in this way using sheep's whey left over from making Pecorino Romano. Some ricottas are made with partially skimmed milk in lieu of whey or with milk added to the whey, resulting in a higher fat content. There are many approaches to making ricotta and myriad variations in both texture and flavor, though all versions are generally fresh, soft and moist. There are exceptions. Ricotta salata is quite different. It's produced in Sicily, Sardinia and several regions of mainland Italy. Salata means "salty," and this cheese is made by salting and pressing fresh ricotta before aging it for about three months. The result is a firm, snow-white cheese that's smooth, pliable and somewhat similar to feta, though not as salty. It has a sweet, milky, slightly nutty flavor. Some ricotta salatas are aged for a year or more until they are hard enough to be grating cheeses. If the word affumicata is used it means the ricotta has been smoked; its exterior will be grayish white to reddish gold to brown. There are myriad smoked versions. For example, ricotta fumo di ginepro, produced in Abruzzo and Molise, is distinctively smoked with juniper wood. Ricotta forte is made by taking leftover fresh ricotta and kneading it periodically for several months before placing it in small clay pots to age for about a year. This results in soft, creamy-brown paste that's exceedingly pungent and piquant. Ricotta infornata is made by baking drained ricotta in a greased pan or clay pot for about a half hour or until the surface begins to brown. The cheese's interior turns pale golden and the exterior a deep golden brown. Ricotta infornata is traditionally eaten fresh, but it's also allowed to age and become hard enough to be used as a grating cheese. American ricottas are typically made with a combination of whey and whole or skim milk, which usually produces a wetter, creamier style of ricotta than Italian versions.
From The Food Lover's Companion, Fourth edition by Sharon Tyler Herbst and Ron Herbst. Copyright © 2007, 2001, 1995, 1990 by Barron's Educational Series, Inc.