With its soft texture and mild, yet rich and slightly sweet flavor, ricotta cheese is popular in many Italian pasta dishes, including filled pastas such as tortellini or ravioli, dips and salads. It can also be used as a dessert cheese and pairs well with fruits and chocolate and can make lower-fat cheesecakes as well as great cannoli!
Ricotta cheese is a whey cheese, rather than the usual curd cheeses that we buy. When curd cheeses are made, the curds or solids are pressed into molds to make cheese and the liquid or whey is left over.
When ricotta cheese is made, once the curds have been removed for other cheeses, the whey is usually heated with some whole milk and an acid such as citrus juice or vinegar is added. This makes the curds left in the whey start coagulating and become larger and more solid. Eventually, this mix is strained through cheesecloth and what is left in the cheesecloth after straining is ricotta or ‘recooked’ cheese.
Traditional ricotta cheese can be made from any type of milk, including goat, sheep or buffalo. Nowadays, our ricotta cheese is usually made from whole milk rather than whey, in much the same way that any cheeses are produced.As a soft cheese, ricotta cheese does not keep for long even when unopened and once opened, it will only last for one to two weeks at the most. As this can limit your recipe options (unless you have planned ahead and been to the store!), there is a variety of dairy - and even a non-dairy - substitutes for ricotta cheese in a range of recipes; whether you want to make a last minute lasagna or some cannoli.
What to Consider When Substituting Ricotta Cheese
Before you decide on which substitution you are going to use, do take the time to read through, as not all substitutes are suitable for all recipes, although a number of the ones we have included below do have a similar consistency and/or flavor to ricotta cheese.
Substitutes that are firmer will often benefit from blending before use to lighten them up, and you may choose to add additional dairy, such as milk, sour cream, crème fraiche or yogurt to help smooth them out and bring some extra creaminess.
If a ricotta cheese substitute is being used in a savory dish, and if its flavor is a little different, you can adjust quantities of herbs or spices to take account of this difference in flavor.It is also worth noting that not all of these substitutes will behave in the same way when heated, which is why some of them are only be suitable as a ricotta cheese alternative in specific types of recipes.
1. Cottage Cheese
Although cottage cheese is less creamy than ricotta cheese, and its flavor slightly milder and saltier, cottage cheese makes a good substitute for ricotta cheese in filled pasta and other dishes with a milder flavor; especially if a small curd rather than a large curd cottage cheese.
Before you use cottage cheese in a recipe, it should be sieved to drain off the excess whey and you can also smooth it by blending it with a tablespoon of skim milk, cream or yogurt. You may also want to strain the cottage cheese through cheesecloth to remove more excess liquid – this will help to firm it up to more of a ricotta cheese consistency.
Depending on the recipe, if you allow hot dishes to sit for a little before serving, this will also allow the cottage cheese to firm up more, so it will not be as runny when you cut into it.
Cottage cheese is also lower in fat, carbs and calories than ricotta cheese, although this also means that it has a lower calcium content.When substituting cottage cheese for ricotta cheese, you can use a like for like quantity.
2. Cream Cheese
With its softer and creamy texture, cream cheese can be used in like for like amounts in place of ricotta cheese in recipes such as lasagnas and cheesecakes.
Cream cheese does contain more fat than ricotta cheese, so if you prefer to use a lower fat cream cheese, this will give a different texture and the flavor may be even milder.With a regular block cream cheese, use a mixer or stick blender to add some air to the cheese and give it a lighter texture before using.
3. Sour Cream
Although sour cream can be an ideal ricotta cheese substitute in dips and some baked goods, it is not a good substitute for ricotta cheese in pasta dishes.
When using sour cream, the sourness of it may cut through, so you can reduce this by blending the sour cream with some cream cheese before making dips.The blandness of sour cream can also be reduced by adding extra spices or herbs.
4. Goat Cheese
Fresh goat cheese is suitable for using in place of fresh ricotta cheese in dessert toppings. It can also be used in some recipes that are baked, but as goat cheese melts sooner than ricotta cheese, it is better added later rather than earlier to a cooking dish.
Fresh goat cheese is creamy with a mild flavor, although it does have a slight tanginess to it, and it can be used in the same quantity as ricotta cheese. Although fresh goat cheese does have a slightly stronger flavor compared to ricotta cheese, it is also a helpful substitute for those who are sensitive to cow’s milk.An aged or hard goat cheese should not be used as an alternative to ricotta cheese. Not only because of its firmer consistency, but also because its flavor has strengthened considerably.
Mascarpone is a full fat Italian fresh cheese made from cream coagulated by an acid such as citric acid to give it a slightly tart flavor. Used in its own right in desserts such as tiramisu, mascarpone can also be used in cannoli, although you may need to blend it first to lighten its consistency to more like that of ricotta cheese.
Because the tart flavor of mascarpone differs to the mild flavor of ricotta cheese, mascarpone should only be used as a substitute in stronger flavored dishes, including those that use garlic.Mascarpone is also much higher in fat than ricotta cheese, which makes it unsuitable as a substitute in lower fat dishes and its higher fat content can cause other foods such as baked dishes to become very greasy.
Made from coagulating soy milk, tofu, with its slightly milder flavor, is a like for like substitute in a variety of ricotta cheese pasta recipes such as lasagna, ravioli and cannoli. It can even be used for stuffed shells.
When tofu is baked, it also loses the ‘egg’ flavor that it has. Not only can tofu be used in recipes adapted for vegan diets, but it is also suitable for those who may have lactose or dairy intolerances. Tofu is also much lower in cholesterol and fat, and higher in protein compared to cheeses.
Ordinary tofu is tougher, but silken tofu can give the same consistency as ricotta cheese. Before using silken tofu, it should be drained of excess water. The easiest way to do this is by just pressing it and it can then be blended or mashed to the same consistency as ricotta cheese.
7. Other Ricotta Cheese Substitutes
There are a number of other dairy products that can be used to substitute ricotta cheese in various recipes. Perhaps not quite as suitable as the alternatives we have already described here, or in some cases, they are harder to obtain, they are still worth a mention.
Buttermilk cheese can take the place of ricotta cheese in pasta recipes and cheesecakes. The French cheese fromage blanc can take the place of ricotta cheese in desserts and yogurt or Greek yogurt can be used in dips, or even blended with other ricotta cheese substitutes to give a creamier consistency.If you are lucky enough to be able to find quark, then this soft cheese is like mascarpone but with more acidity and it can be used as ricotta cheese in desserts. The Indian cheese paneer is a mild and fresh tasting cheese which can also be used as a ricotta cheese alternative in some desserts.
If you do not have ricotta cheese to hand, then there are a variety of substitutes that you can use in its place, whether for sweet or savory dishes. Although the majority of these alternatives are dairy, it is good to know that tofu can also be used as an alternative to ricotta cheese in vegan dishes or for those who are allergic or sensitive to dairy.So, the next time you fancy some stuffed pasta, you can reach for some cottage cheese, cream cheese or goat cheese instead of needing to go to the store to buy some ricotta cheese.