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December 26, 2012

A 'recooked' cheese that tastes anything but

When it comes to food, “recooked” isn’t generally a term met with much affection. The dairy world, however, gives us a fine exception in ricotta cheese.

Ricotta — Italian for recooked — isn’t exactly a stranger to most Americans, who tend to love it in their lasagna and stuffed pasta shells. But as cheeses go, its versatility is vastly underappreciated, mostly because few people realize how it’s made, or why that matters for how they use it.

So let’s start there. Ricotta got its name because it is made literally by recooking the liquid left over from making other cheese, often mozzarella. This is possible because when the mozzarella or other cheeses are made, most but not all of the protein is removed from the liquid, usually cow’s milk.

That leftover protein can be recooked and coagulated using a different, acid-based process (a rennet-based method is used to make the first batch of cheese). The result is a soft, granular cheese with a texture somewhere between yogurt and cottage cheese. The taste is mild, milky, salty and slightly acidic.

And that acid is key. When cheese is formed using acid, the proteins become heat resistant. In other words, the cheese doesn’t melt. So ricotta falls in the same category as paneer, halloumi, queso blanco and other cheese that can be heated without melting. This is why ricotta is such a fine choice for lasagna, stuffed shells, ravioli and cheesecake. It heats wonderfully, but doesn’t reduce to a pool of goo.

In Italy, there are many varieties of ricotta, including smoked and baked. In the U.S., most grocers carry only the more perishable soft, moist variety sold in tubs.

So now that you know what it is and why it won’t melt, what should you do with it?

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