All you need is a food processor and a bit of lemon juice to transform your ricotta into a completely new ingredient.
Ricotta is the black dress of Italian cheeses. It’s not only versatile and affordable, but with the help of a food processor and a touch of lemon juice and olive oil, any home cook can turn it into a new cheese altogether—one that’s luxuriously creamy and spreadable.
Ricotta makes an appearance in Italian dishes—like cheesecake, lasagna, manicotti, and pizza blanco—and has a soft texture and a sweet flavor that tastes great uncooked, all on its own. In Italy, cheesemakers allow whey to ferment and then heat it to almost boiling. Acidity and heat cause proteins to form fine curds. The curds strained from the heated liquid form ricotta—hence the name, which means “recooked” in Italian. In the United States, ricotta is often made from whole milk, rather than just whey, and vinegar is added to acidify it along with salt, before it is cooked to form curds. Rich whole-milk ricotta is firm yet not solid, with a very moist and granular texture and a mildly sweet flavor.
In Italy, cheesemakers manipulate ricotta by salting, smoking, or fermenting—shifting flavor and texture using sometimes elaborate steps. At home, you can transform it with just a couple of minutes in the food processor or blender. When ricotta is whipped, the curds are broken up and the ricotta loses its crumbly, chalky texture, becoming much smoother and creamier. The razor-sharp blades of a blender or food processor not only make the texture more homogenous and spreadable but also remove some of the air, making it denser. A bit of olive oil smooths it out, while lemon juice, zest, and salt highlight the cheese’s lightly fermented tang.
Whipped ricotta can be used in place of Greek yogurt, sour cream, or even crème fraîche in cold soups, as a base for dips, and in desserts. The sweetened version is similar to something called ricotta impastata, often used by pastry chefs in desserts like cannoli. It’s lovely slathered on crepes or pancakes, layered with berries or bananas to make a parfait, or used in place of mascarpone in tiramisu.
As a savory ingredient, ricotta is no longer just a filling for pasta. To make a dip for vegetables and chips, swirl pesto into whipped ricotta or spread it on toasted bread and top with prosciutto or roasted red peppers for a tasty antipasto. It’s versatile enough to use as a base for a fresh herb salad or tomato-and-cucumber salad, tossed with hot pasta or dolloped on roasted vegetables.
Look for a high-quality brand of whole-milk ricotta, without stabilizers if possible. You can whip part-skim milk ricotta, but it won’t be quite as rich and creamy. Whipped ricotta will keep in the refrigerator for several days, although it may separate slightly. To bring it back to life, simply give it a stir or drain off any liquid.