Italian ricotta and Maltese irkotta - are they the same?

Smooth and creamy ricotta is a versatile ingredient that can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes or can be enjoyed as a tasty snack simply spread on bread.

The creamy Italian ricotta differs from the Maltese variety in cooking processes
The creamy Italian ricotta differs from the Maltese variety in cooking processes

Foodies will notice a difference between Italian ricotta and the Maltese made irkotta, and this boils down to the cooking methods.

The manufacturing process of the Maltese irkotta involves the cooking of milk, rather than of milk whey, with the addition of calcium chloride (a type of salt) to form a curd.

Italian ricotta, on the other hand, is actually a by-product of cheese making, using the milk whey left over from cheese production. Though most of the milk protein is removed when cheese is made - mainly casein - some remains in the whey - mostly albumin. The whey is left to become more acidic for 12 to 24 hours and is then heated to near boiling. The combination of the cheese acid and the high temperatures form a fine curd, which, once cooled, is sieved through a fine cloth. The creamy curds are white and sweet in taste, though are highly perishable and must be consumed immediately.

Ricotta, whether the original Italian version or the Maltese irkotta, is used in a number of savoury dishes including ravioli, lasagne or simply spread on bread with a drizzle of olive oil for a light snack as it contains significantly less fat than other cheeses at just 13%. The same as mascarpone, ricotta is a vital ingredient in many Italian desserts such as cheesecake, cannoli and cassatella siciliana.

 In addition to its fresh, soft form, ricotta is also sold in three preparations which ensure a longer shelf life: salted, baked and smoked.

The pressed, salted, dried and aged variety of the cheese is known as ricotta salata, milky-white and firm, used for grating or shaving. Ricotta salata is sold in wheels, decorated by a delicate basket-weave pattern.

Ricotta infornata is produced by placing a large lump of soft ricotta in the oven until it develops a brown, lightly charred crust, sometimes even until it becomes sandy brown all the way through. Ricotta infornata is popular primarily in Sardinia and Sicily, and is sometimes called ricotta al forno.

Ricotta affumicata is similar to ricotta infornata. It is produced by placing a lump of soft ricotta in a smoker until it develops a grey crust and acquires a charred wood scent, usually of oak or chestnut wood, although, in Friuli, beech wood is used, with the addition of juniper and herbs.

Ricotta scanta is produced by the process of letting the ricotta go sour in a controlled manner, for about a week, then 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, pungent, piquant aroma, much like blue cheese but much richer. Ricotta scanta, also called ricotta forte, tastes as it smells, extremely aromatic and piquant, with a definite bitter note. Tasted with the tip of the tongue, it has a "hot" sensation.





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