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Creamy, fresh, slightly sweet, light ricotta ("cooked twice") is an Italian cheese made from sheep milk whey, the liquid remaining after milk has been curdled and strained for the production of cheese. A byproduct, nothing is wasted! It takes over 2 and a half gallons of milk to produce 2 pounds of cheese, and the residue from that process is whey.

Ricotta can be also produced with milk from cows, goats, or Italian buffalos: the milk whey is first allowed to become more acidic by letting it sit for 24 hours at room temperature, sometimes with additional acid like vinegar or lemon juice. Then the acidified whey is heated to near boiling, forming a fine curd. Once cooled, the curd is separated by passing it through a fine cloth. It should be eaten very fresh or used for cooking if it is a couple of days old. And it does not taste like the ricotta you find in supermarkets.

There is no conclusive evidence indicating where cheese-making originated, but this use for the milk whey has ancient origins and it is mentioned by Roman statesman Cato the Elder (234 BC, Tusculum – 149 BC). In his times, sheep milk had three uses: religious, as a holy drink, for making cheese and with the remaining whey to make ricotta and similar fresh cheeses. It is also mentioned by Columella, in his work De Re Rustica, written in the first century A.D., who describes the various phases involved in ricotta’s production.

Ricotta is commonly used in savory dishes, including pasta (ravioli, crespelle, lasagne, manfredi, etc.), calzone, pizza, sauces, and a favorite component of many desserts, such as cannoli, cassata, cakes and cookies. Combined with eggs and cooked grains, it is a main ingredient in Naples' pastiera.

Ricotta can be salted, baked and smoked. The pressed, salted, dried, and aged variety is known as ricotta salata, used for grating or shaving over several dishes. Ricotta infornata or ricotta al forno is made by placing a large lump of soft ricotta in the oven until it develops a brown, lightly charred crust, popular primarily in Sardinia and Sicily. Ricotta affumicata is similar to ricotta infornata, made by placing ricotta in a smoker, with the addition of herbs.

Puglia’s stinky, strong and pungent Ricotta scanta or ricotta forte is produced by letting ricotta go sour for about a week, stirring it every 2–3 days, salting occasionally and allowing the liquid to flow away. After about 100 days, the ricotta has the consistency of cream cheese, with a distinct aroma like blue cheese but much richer. Orecchiette with tomato sauce and ricotta forte is a classic of the cuisine of Lecce.

Ricotta can be eaten by people with casein intolerance, and contains only 13% fat, considerably lighter than cottage cheese.