Mascarpone vs Ricotta

Mascarpone vs Ricotta

It’s an Italian showdown of incredible, edible proportions!

If you love the rich decadence that only creamy recipes from the Peninsula can deliver, then you can’t go wrong with two of the country’s favorites – mascarpone and ricotta cheese.

While their Italian heritage may unite these dairy delights under their country’s flag, there are some differences between them – the texture and flavor being the most prominent.

In terms of flavor differences, both mascarpone and ricotta possess hints of milky sweetness but mascarpone also has a noticeable degree of tanginess which is much less pronounced in ricotta.

Beyond taste, it’s the texture difference that is the most noticeable.

Mascarpone very closely mimics a blend of cream cheese and softened butter whereas ricotta cheese is a lighter, more akin to cottage cheese. Mostly this has to do with the differences in fat content betweeen them.

Mascarpone has higher levels of fat, up to 46% per serving while most ricotta comes in below 15%.

Aside from these basic differences, there are others including their respective histories and much more.

So without further delay, get your cookbooks ready and let’s make room for these Italian heavyweights!

Differences in History

Although mascarpone and ricotta have different histories, they do share a common country of origin – Italy. And when it comes to Italian cheeses, the Lombardy region is the one most often recognized by cheese lovers across the globe and for good reason.

It’s this area that is the birthplace of mascarpone.

Food historians have traced the earliest forms of mascarpone to the 17th century but the evolution of the word itself is not as clear.

It’s thought to have two possible origins. The first of these is “mascarpa” and to a lesser extent, a similar term, “mascarpia”.

Curiously, mascarpa is a word to describe a by-product of the whey from stracchino cheese. In fact, it’s the milk produced by the whey but despite this, strachhino is not related to mascarpone cheese.

The second term, mascarpia, is coincidentally a word used by local residents to describe ricotta cheese.

Confused yet?

If so, it’s understandable but we think the rich tapestry of language adds to the love we have for both of these iconic cheeses.

It’s not fully known when ricotta cheese first made its appearance however, it’s thought by historians that it at least stretches back as far as the Bronze Age. Ricotta cheese translates from the Latin “recota” which roughly means “recooked” or “cooked twice”.

The evolution of it was a practical and frugal outcome of life on the Italian Peninsula. It’s thought that early cheese makers stumbled upon the realization that whey could be harvested and cooked again, hence the name.

During Roman times ricotta was consumed, but it’s likely that only goat shepherds and perhaps aristocracy would have had access to it regularly. This is because ricotta is a fresh cheese with a short shelf life so widespread distribution was not practical.

As time passed, so too did the refinement of ricotta and today, it’s produced the world over.

However, perhaps the most well-known region for modern ricotta is Sicily. 

Differences in Types (or Variants)

For this article, we’ll only be comparing and contrasting fresh ricotta (buffalo) to fresh mascarpone.

However, there are also aged varieties of ricotta cheese which include affumicata, forte (also known as scanta), infornata and salata. The methods used to ferment these types of ricotta include baking, salting and smoking.

We’ll touch on each of these briefly.

Ricotta affumicata is a smoked cheese. Starting with a lump of fresh ricotta, the cheese is placed in a smoker oven until forms a crusty exterior char. Normally, chestnut, oak or beechwood are used for smoking.

Ricotta forte (scanta) is different from fresh ricotta in terms of taste and appearance. Whereas fresh ricotta is light and milky, ricotta forte is darker and pungent, spicy and somewhat bitter. Also known as strong ricotta, forte is aged for a year or more. During this time, it’s continually salted which makes it ideal for use with dishes like pasta and vegetables or as a spread on bread.

Ricotta infornata is a baked variety of ricotta cheese. Like affumicata, the preparation begins with a lump of fresh ricotta but instead of aiming for a smoky finish, the result is a cheese with a golden brown crust and crumbly center.

As for ricotta salata, it’s the firmest of all types of ricotta. It’s dry aged, pressed and salted into wheels which makes it ideal for use as a topping since it can be shaved or grated. 

Differences in Texture and Taste

If you’ve ever had cottage cheese before, then the texture of fresh ricotta will be familiar to you. The possible exception might be a lighter feel in the mouth. Otherwise, the fine grains of ricotta are creamy and impart a slight hint of tangy, milky sweetness.

In contrast to the lightness of fresh ricotta, mascarpone has a much smoother consistency. It’s much closer to a cross between butter and cream cheese. Even so, mascarpone does have a similar taste profile to ricotta with perhaps a bit more tanginess.

Differences in Usage

If you’re a tiramisu lover, then you’ve already experienced the richness that only mascarpone can provide. Another crowd pleaser that adds mascarpone as a key ingredient is cheesecake.

While desserts are the most common usage of mascarpone, its high fat content does make it an excellent option for hot or cold savory dishes.

While ricotta has its place as an ingredient in desserts like cheesecake and cookies, it is also used in other ways.

Sticking with the sweet tooth theme, a prominent use of ricotta involves whipping it into a smooth cream and adding sugar (along with optional ingredients like spices). The pastelike result can be served by itself or perhaps in the most well known way of all, as a filling for cannolis.

Aside from desserts, ricotta is often used with beloved savory Italian dishes like lasagna, ravioli, pizzas and more.

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