As any Italian grandmother knows, the importance of good ricotta cannot be overstated.
Published Nov. 1, 2016. Appears in America's Test Kitchen TV Season 18: Ultimate Italian
As any Italian grandmother knows, the importance of good ricotta cannot be overstated. It’s the key ingredient in dishes like lasagna, stuffed pastas, cannoli, and cheesecake. A good ricotta should be both creamy and dense, with a fresh dairy flavor. Unfortunately, many products miss the mark, with grainy or watery textures and funky off-flavors. We’ve had good luck with local products in the past, but we wanted to find a quality ricotta that’s easy to find in supermarkets across the country. We scooped up four, priced from $0.20 to $0.47 per ounce, focusing on whole-milk ricottas because we typically rely on whole-milk ricotta when developing recipes in the test kitchen and because whole-milk ricottas generally offer better flavor and texture than lower-fat options. We tasted them plain and in baked manicotti.
Texture stood out in the plain tasting. Tasters were critical of an organic product that had large, visible curds with a “wet,” “cottage cheese”–like consistency; most found the “granular” texture unappealing. At the other end of the spectrum, the remaining three samples were pleasantly smooth and creamy. As for flavor, we preferred those that tasted mildly sweet to those with a slight tang. Baking the ricotta in manicotti with tomato sauce helped level the playing field for flavor but not for texture: That curd-y sample remained too “grainy” or “lumpy” for most tasters, while the smoother samples got high marks. Our favorite stood out with an “ultracreamy,” pleasantly dense consistency and a clean, fresh flavor. How to explain our preferences? The fat levels were similar, between 6 and 8 grams per serving. Sodium didn’t offer obvious clues; the ricottas with the most sodium fell in first and fourth places. Looking for answers, we investigated the production methods.
In Italy, traditional ricotta is made with whey (a natural byproduct of cheese making), which is heated with a small amount of acid to coagulate it and form curds, and seasoned with salt. Ideally, the curds are then scooped by hand rather than by machine so that they don’t break or become tough and are carefully placed in containers. But here in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate the ingredients or production methods for ricotta, and all those rules go out the window.
For starters, many U.S. manufacturers replace some or all of the whey with milk—the two products in our lineup that don’t use any whey scored lowest (one is still recommended). Whey can be either sweet or acidic, so we asked the manufacturers of our two favorites which type they used. We learned that they are both mostly made using a sweet whey from mozzare...
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