Just because they’re shapeless blobs compared to their stiffer 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 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. 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 fat and caloric 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, lasagna, and cheesecake. 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.
Cottage cheese is often eaten mostly by itself, served with fruit at breakfast or as a healthy dessert. Watch our video to learn how to keep cottage cheese fresh longer.
Now, to get cooking:
1. Homemade Ricotta Cheese
Whey is hard to find, so this 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 and buy a pre-made version and return home. Get our Homemade Ricotta Cheese recipe.
2. Lemon Ricotta Pancakes
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.
3. Noodleless Zucchini Lasagna
Low carb and lower fat, this rendition of lasagna uses cottage cheese mixed with grated Parmesan as the creamy filling and strips of thinly sliced zucchini instead of noodles. Get our Noodleless Zucchini Lasagna recipe.
4. Winter Greens Lasagna
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.
5. Ricotta Honey Tart
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.
6. Bubbe’s Luchen Kugel
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. Get our Bubbe’s Luchen Kugel recipe.
7. Herbed Ricotta Spread
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.
— Photos: Chowhound.