Sicilian ricotta cheese: a symbol of gastronomic tradition and the protagonist of many tasty recipes
When one thinks of Sicilian cheeses, it is impossible that ricotta does not come to mind. Ricotta, whether from cow or sheep, is the main ingredient in many Sicilian dishes. Protagonist in pastry, as among pasta dishes, ricotta is one of the most loved ingredients by Sicilians and others.
Just think of cannoli or cassata, traditional or baked, now famous throughout the world and symbols of the pastry art of our island.
Sweet or savoury, we have decided to dedicate an entire article to the delicious Sicilian ricotta, to learn about its origins, history, preparation and the many extraordinary recipes that make this Slow Food Presidium a symbol of our cuisine. Let’s get started!
Sweet ricotta: the secrets of traditional processing
The main ingredient in countless Sicilian pastry masterpieces, sweet ricotta (strictly sheep’s milk ricotta) is used to make the famous cannoli and the delicious cassata!
But how is sweet sheep’s ricotta prepared, to fill freshly baked wafers or for any other Sicilian dessert? According to tradition, sheep’s ricotta is made by following a very ancient process, that of ‘ricotta’ of whey.
Yes. ‘Ricotta‘ (ri-cotta in italian) really means ‘cooked twice’. The liquid part of the milk, separated during the preparation of the cheese, is cooked again at high temperatures to promote the coagulation process of the proteins. This process gives rise to ricotta, which is then placed in special containers to drain.
How sweet ricotta is prepared
The ricotta is placed in special containers to drain off excess liquid. The ancient objects used to strain the ricotta cheese are part of those craft tools that can be seen at antique markets or in the storerooms of old country houses.
They are called ‘fasceddi‘ and were once used by shepherds to give a specific shape to the cheese and, of course, also for draining the ricotta. But there are not only fasceddi: in other areas, so-called ‘cavagne‘ were used.
Today, something has changed, these ancient objects are not used (except in some villages where the tradition is still preserved), but rather plastic containers are used that simulate those of the time.
Where do we find sweet ricotta? In Sicilian cannoli, traditional cassata, oven baked cassata, but also in Sicilian cuccia with ricotta porridge, in Palermo’s fried iris, in arancine with ricotta and chocolate (ficoccelle) or in Sicilian cialdoni.
Are you getting hungry? Well, wait, we still have to talk about ricotta salata!
Ricotta salata: a tasty and genuine tradition
Among the typical Sicilian cheeses, we must undoubtedly mention salted ricotta. Ideal to eat plain, salted ricotta is also suitable for grating over traditional pasta dishes, first and foremost pasta alla Norma, but also meatballs and ricotta or pasta with courgette and ricotta pesto.
But what is ricotta salata and what are its most important characteristics? Let’s find out together.
The salted version of Sicilian ricotta is also famous and noteworthy. Salted ricotta, as opposed to sweet ricotta, is a typical cheese made from cow’s milk whey, sheep’s milk and salt. Anything else? Absolutely not.
Even today, the best Sicilian dairies use only these three simple ingredients to make a genuine product that strictly follows tradition.
In some cases agra, a mixture of broad beans, lemons and wheat bran, or ficarra, a solution of water and fig twigs, is added to the heated whey.
How to make ricotta salata
Ricotta salata follows a similar procedure to sweet ricotta. In fact, the whey from cow’s milk is put into special containers called ‘doubles’ and, in some cheese factories, the quarara, a kind of tin-plated boiler, is used instead.
The whey is cooked at a medium-high temperature, about 85°C, which causes the formation of special flakes, which are then collected with special tools, placed in special ‘fuscelle’ (where the ricotta takes on its typical shape) and here the excess whey is removed.
Salt is added and then left to rest. Obviously, depending on the type of ripening desired for the product, the ricotta is left to rest for a specific time.
Ricotta salata: its most important characteristics
It is easy to distinguish sweet from salty ricotta, right from the very first sight! Sweet ricotta has a soft consistency and a purely white colour, whereas salty ricotta is harder and darker. Despite its hardness and full-bodied consistency, salty ricotta literally melts in the mouth.
The flavour, on the other hand, is pungent, more intense and slightly spicy. Definitely, persistent. In which Sicilian dishes do we find it? Definitely as a garnish for pasta alla norma, an essential ingredient that gives the dish personality, flavour and makes it memorable!
Ricotta infornata: a Slow Food Presidium to be savoured
There is a variant of ricotta salata that you absolutely must get to know and try. We are talking about “ricotta infornata”, a type of salted ricotta that is produced in different parts of Sicily.
This type of salted ricotta is, as you may have already guessed, placed in the oven, inside special ceramic containers. It can also be found covered with black pepper, because the container has been sprinkled with ground black pepper during cooking. Inside, it remains white and creamy.
Cooking takes place in stone ovens, at fairly high temperatures, around 180-200°. When the surface turns a dark colour, tending towards red, it is ready! It is left to rest for a day and then can be served and enjoyed. A true Sicilian delicacy, to be enjoyed at least once in a lifetime!
And you, have you tried sweet or savoury ricotta? Have you used it to prepare traditional Sicilian dishes or do you know any recipes you would like to share with us? Leave us a comment!