Look at them side by side and it might be difficult to come up with an answer to the question, “What is the difference between ricotta and cottage cheese?” Just because they’re both pale, shapeless blobs compared to their stiffer dairy counterparts doesn’t mean ricotta and cottage cheese don’t deserve attention and distinction. One kind conjures images of rich Italian pastas and desserts, and the other makes you think of dieting and grapefruit. The real difference between ricotta and cottage cheese is fourfold: ingredients, texture, taste, and best uses in recipes—so pretty much everything. They do look similar, though, don’t they? And they’re both pretty mild-mannered. But you can’t always substitute one for the other.
Both cheeses are usually made from cow’s milk and are fresh, so they don’t have that aged pungency that you get from other cheeses (read more about aged cheese vs fresh cheese). They’re also both soft, white, and moist. That’s about where the similarities end.
Ricotta was originally created in Italy to use up the whey when a cheesemaker separates milk or cream into curds and whey for other cheeses. The word stems from the Latin recocta, meaning recooked. Ricotta feels smooth but slightly grainy. It tastes subtly sweet.
Of course, there are exceptions. Ricotta salata, which means “salty,” is salted and aged at least three months, resulting in a texture more like feta. American ricotta adds whole or skim milk to the whey, producing a wetter, creamier style than the Italian versions. Ricotta has a higher caloric and fat content than cottage cheese, but less salt.
There are so many wonderful ways to use ricotta in your cooking. Dollop ricotta on pasta, fold it into a sauce, or spread it on a toasted slices of baguette with a drizzle of honey or under tomatoes for bruschetta. Ricotta is beloved as a filling for pasta shells, manicotti, ravioli, cannoli, classic lasagna, and cheesecake. But you can also simply bake ricotta for a great, easy party appetizer. Watch how the perfect ricotta cheese is made in Brooklyn and get tips on what to do with leftover ricotta cheese.
Cottage cheese is made from the curds of milk, either whole, part-skimmed, or skimmed. It comes in large-curd, medium-curd, and small-curd varieties. Sometimes you can find it flavored with chives or pineapple as well. It’s lumpier and wetter than ricotta, and it has a lot more sodium.
You can use cottage cheese instead of ricotta for lasagna and stuffed shell recipes, but usually that’s only for people looking to lower the fat and calories in their dish, rather than a taste or texture preference. Strain or blend the cottage cheese if you want the consistency to be closer to ricotta. You cannot, however, use cottage cheese in a cheesecake that requires ricotta.
Now that you know the difference between ricotta and cottage cheese, time to get cooking with them both!
Whey is hard to find, so this easy homemade ricotta recipe uses milk and cream, as well as salt and distilled white vinegar. You can make this cheese in less time than it takes to go to the store, buy a pre-made version, and return home. Get our Homemade Ricotta Cheese recipe.
Five or 10 minutes are all you need to make an impressive, luxurious spread to go atop your toasted baguette slices. You just need to add chopped chives, parsley, basil, and lemon juice to some ricotta. Top it with prosciutto, and damn: Consider your hors d’ oeuvres delivered with panache. Get our Herbed Ricotta Spread recipe.
With all the crème fraiche, ricotta, heavy cream, and parmesan cheese in this lasagna, green health-food haters can’t protest. It’s just too decadent to turn up your nose at this vegetarian dish. The red kale and Swiss chard are gonna give you nutrients whether you like it or not. Get our Winter Greens Lasagna recipe.
Baked ziti is a classic full of good things: pasta, tomato sauce, meatballs (here, we just make ours from Italian sausage so they’re super easy), and ricotta dolloped everywhere. Think of this as a less formal version of Italian Sausage Stuffed Shells—and just as delicious. Get our Baked Ziti with Meatballs and Ricotta.
Fluffy whole-milk ricotta and the zest of three lemons do a lot for these pancakes, but the real trick to their heavenly texture is in the egg separation. You add the yolks in like normal, but you whisk the egg whites until you get soft peaks, and then add them at the last minute to the batter. Get our Lemon Ricotta Pancakes recipe.
A simple buttery flour crust spiked with lemon encases a filling of ricotta, lemon zest, clover honey, cinnamon, egg, and a topping of slivered almonds. It’s simple, and it’s wonderful. Get our Ricotta Honey Tart recipe.
Ricotta cheescakes are light, fluffy, and fantastic no matter how you top them (or if you don’t top them at all). When blood oranges aren’t in season, try swapping in the jam or jelly of your choice, preferably homemade from whatever fruit is looking (and tasting) best at the moment. If you’re just making a quick batch to use right away, you don’t have to worry about sterilizing jars, so it won’t take long or be complicated. And you can use it while it’s still warm since it’s meant to be more of a glaze on this dessert. Get our Ricotta Cheesecake with Blood Orange Marmalade recipe.
The two cottage cheese recipes to come below, while delicious, could definitely be considered homely—but this healthy cottage cheese-based take on queso from The Homesick Texan is gorgeous surrounded by a rainbow mix of vegetables, and a perfect light app for spring garden parties and summer barbecues galore. Don’t think it’s mild-mannered, though; the flavors are bright and earthy with a little spice, thanks to jalapeños, onion, garlic, cilantro, vinegar, and cumin. Get the Chilled Chile con Queso recipe.
Low carb and lower fat, this noodle-free lasagna uses cottage cheese mixed with grated parmesan as the creamy filling and strips of thinly sliced zucchini instead of noodles. Perfect for using up all the extra summer squash you’ll soon no doubt be dealing with… Get our Noodleless Zucchini Lasagna recipe.
Bayla Scher gave us her low-fat version of traditional Jewish noodle kugel, so you’ll be using low-fat cottage cheese and low-fat sour cream in this flexible dish that can be served warm or cold. Perfect for Passover, or any homey Sunday night. Get our Bubbe’s Luchen Kugel recipe.
Get answers to more of your nagging kitchen questions.
This post was originally published on March 8, 2017 and was updated on March 30, 2019.
Header image by Chowhound, using photos from Shutterstock and Pixabay.