There’s ricotta and there’s ricotta.
If that means nothing to you, then you’ve never had ricotta.
The good stuff doesn’t come with an expiration date.
There are cheeses that improve with age. Ricotta is not one of them.
Technically, ricotta isn’t even a cheese. It’s a by-product of the cheese making process. Ricotta is made from whey, the milky water that’s left after the real cheese is pulled out. The whey sits and ferments at room temperature for a day, and fine, fluffy curds of ricotta form when it’s heated. It’s a second heating since the milk was heated once for the original cheese making—hence the name ricotta, which means ‘recooked’ in Italian.
Ricotta’s age should be measured in hours, not days.
The curds are ready to eat as soon as they’re strained from the water, and that first scooping is best of all, when the curds are at their airiest and most quiveringly delicate. After just a few minutes the fragile curds will compress a bit under their own weight forcing out moisture. As the minutes and hours tick away they’ll continue to drain, becoming increasingly drier and firmer, eventually becoming like the dense pebbles you find in the supermarket.
Ricotta’s taste has a similar trajectory.
The freshest ricotta is sweet but with a grassy lilt, lush and powerfully milky, but over time the vividly fresh flavors fade away.
Even at its peak, ricotta charms through subtlety, which is one of its great virtues: it’s a utility player in the kitchen able to play both sweet and savory, both raw and cooked. And it’s a great carrier of flavors, making it ideal as a stuffing for everything from chicken to rum cake.
Don’t mistake mild for bland.
Ricotta will never bowl you over with taste and complexity like the tang of a farmstead cheddar or the pungency of Stilton. But find it made fresh and eat it fast and it will win you over with simplicity and freshness.