Whether it's baked into an awesome ricotta torta, stirred into pasta, or eaten straight off of a spoon by the flickering light of the refrigerator in the middle of the night (seasoned only with Maldon salt and guilt), ricotta is one of the great dairy products of the world. Seldom does a week go by when Ed doesn't stop by DiPalo's across the street for curds of some form or another—fresh mozzarella or stracciatella, perhaps—but it's the fresh ricotta days I look forward to the most.
Spread a spoonful of their ultra-creamy stuff on a slice of pizza bianca, sprinkle it with salt and cracked black pepper, drizzle it with great olive oil, and go to town. You know why I don't make as many ricotta cheesecakes as I should? Because I eat it straight out of the jar before I get a chance.
Old-fashioned ricotta is made by taking the curds left over from cheese production (traditionally parmesan), adding an acid to them, then heating them until whatever proteins are leftover coagulate. The curds are then strained, drained, and sold. The word ricotta means "twice cooked," in reference to this process.
Modern ricotta, on the other hand, is generally made with fresh whole or skimmed milk to which acid is added directly. As a result, most packaged ricottas are a bit fattier and creamier than ricotta made by the traditional method. This is totally cool by us.
The quesiton is, who makes the best?
We picked 9 nationally available brands for our taste test:
- Whole Foods 365
- Trader Giotto's
- Polly-O (Made by Kraft)
- Organic Valley
- Tofutti (Vegan)
- White Rose
- Shop Rite
In order to set the bar, we also included a ringer—a pint of fresh-made ricotta from DiPalo across the street. It's some of the finest stuff in the city.
Ricotta should taste first and foremost of fresh dairy. Any sort of sourness or off flavors are a turn-off. Sweet and creamy is what we're looking for. As for texture, chalky, grainy ricottas are a sign that the milk was heated too hot or agitated too much during production, causing the proteins to tighten up into rubbery bundles.
There should be a slight graininess to the texture, but the grains should be composed of soft, creamy curds, not little rubber balls. Ricottas can run the gamut from smooth, tiny grains to larger almost cottage cheese-like curds. We prefer something in the middle—if you want a smoother product, you can always whip it yourself at home.
After tasting all the ricottas plain, the top five were baked into cheesecakes to see how they fared when cooked.
The ringer ricotta won by a hefty margin, which goes to show that if you want the best, there's no substitute. Don't have a dairy nearby? Check out our recipe for fresh ricotta in five minutes or less. It'll knock the socks off of any store-bought version.
When it came to the store-bought versions, our favorite brands were made with whole milk, an acid coagulant, salt, and nothing else. All ricottas are watery when first made. Better producers will simply drain this excess liquid before packing, resulting in a rich, creamy, final product. Others will skimp on this drainage step, instead adding gums and stabilizers to their ricotta.
The idea is that it'll keep the excess moisture from leaking out in an unbecoming manner. It also makes the ricotta unsuitable for baking with—the gums break down, causing the ricotta to turn grainy.
#1: Calabro (6.1/10)
Sweet, fresh, and creamy, this one tasted almost as good as homemade. It comes in two types of packaging. We tasted the variety in sealed packaged plastic tubs, which have expiration dates about two months away. A super moist ricotta, it requires a bit of extra draining before baking into a cheesecake—an hour in a paper towel-lined strainer did the trick.
You can also find it in over-stuffed metal cans covered in plastic and sealed with a rubber band. While it was not part of the official taste test, I personally seek out this packaging as it has an even creamier, fresher flavor (matched by an expiration date of weeks instead of months).
#2: White Rose (5.8/10)
A surprise winner, this generic supermarket brand was the most inexpensive ricotta in our lineup. Tasters praised its creamy texture, but it lost points for an overly sour flavor.
#3: Sorrento (5.4/10)
Highly smooth with a very fine grain, you won't mistake this one for a completely fresh ricotta, but its flavor had us reaching back for another dip. For baking, you can use it straight out of the container, which is convenient.
Good In A Pinch
#4: Whole Foods (5.1/10)
Despite good creamy flavor and relatively high marks when tasted plain, Whole Foods brand ricotta is not suitable for baking with. It's bound with a variety of gums which serve the purpose of keeping moisture from leaking out. Unfortunately, they don't work so well when the ricotta is cooked. A ricotta pie baked with gum-stabilized ricotta ends up grainy, weeping water copiously. Stay away from it!
#5: Polly-O (4.9/10)
Similarly to the Whole Foods brand, Polly-O's ricotta is stabilized with gums, again making it unsuitable for baking with despite decent marks when tasted plain.
#6: Shop Rite (4.8/10)
Smooth with almost no curds, it tasted almost as if it had been blended, like a cream cheese. It wasn't offensive, but tasters talked about its mild flavor that bordered on bland.
#7: Trader Joe's (4.1/10)
Gummy, squeaky, and "way chalky" were its biggest problems, despite decently fresh flavor. It was the second-lowest scoring bland—er, brand—in terms of texture, scoring only 2.9 out of a possible 10.
#8: Organic Valley (2.6/10)
A severe drop-off from other brands, Organic Valley's ricotta tasted more like poorly curdled cream—something like half-churned butter in watery milk. Most tasters couldn't get past its awful texture even far enough to comment on the flavor. "I spit this one... sorry!"
#9: Tofutti (1.4/10)
Hide yo' kids, hide yo' wife, and hide yo' husbands. This is one ricotta-like-product you do not wanna f&ck with. If you see it coming towards you on a dimly lit street—heck, if you see it coming towards you in broad daylight during a Full House reunion at Disney World—turn around and head the other way. Immediately.
Our Tasting Methodology: All taste tests are conducted completely blind and without discussion. Tasters taste samples in random order. For example, taster A may taste sample 1 first, while taster B will taste sample 6 first. This is to prevent palate fatigue from unfairly giving any one sample an advantage. Tasters are asked to fill out tasting sheets ranking the samples for various criteria that vary from sample to sample. All data is tabulated and results are calculated with no editorial input in order to give us the most impartial representation of actual results possible.