Cheese lovers often find themselves in the classic ricotta vs cottage cheese debate.
While cottage cheese and ricotta cheese may seem similar enough, there are actually some key differences in the way they’re made, their tastes, and even their nutritional values.
Nevertheless, we still tend to want to use ricotta and cottage cheese interchangeably in hearty Italian dishes like stuffed shells, lasagna, and ravioli – hence the constant questions like what’s the difference, and which one’s better?
Some of it is simply a matter of taste and preference, while other factors play into ricotta vs cottage cheese standoff.
For example, ricotta is a bit sweeter, dry, dense, and a bit grainy. In the USA, ricotta is a bit more expensive than cottage cheese.
While cottage cheese is salty, with a loose, “curdy” texture and creamy smooth lumps, yet not as stiff as ricotta.
Beyond that, ricotta cheese and cottage cheese are also better suited to other types of recipes, like certain kinds of toast, dessert, and casseroles.
In this article, we’ll discuss all the ins and outs of both ricotta and cottage cheese, from how they’re made to how long they last, to different ways to use them.
Hopefully, the up close and personal look at each will be enough to finally put an end to the ricotta vs cottage cheese debacle.
Ricotta is a soft white cheese composed of small curds with a slightly sweet, somewhat bitter, and rich, creamy taste.
The origins of ricotta cheese reach so far back into ancient Rome – and beyond – that its birthplace is all but untraceable.
One thing we know for certain, though, is that ricotta cheese was invented or discovered as a means of utilizing all possible leftover cheese making products.
Ricotta, which translates from Italian as “recooked,” is made from the leftover whey used to make other cheeses.
Rather than discarding the leftover whey, Sicilians discovered they could allow the whey to ferment for one to two days, cook it to a near boil, then filter the resulting curds from the moisture through a cloth, creating what became known as ricotta cheese.
Ricotta cheese is now commercially manufactured for mass consumption around the world, but traditional farm-fresh ricotta is still locally made and sold in street markets across Italy.
There is some variety when it comes to ricotta, as the type of milk that’s used to make the cheese varies depending on the region of Italy in which it’s made.
These days, ricotta made with cow’s milk is probably the most available (especially in the United States), with sheep’s milk ricotta a close second; however, ricotta made with goat’s milk and even buffalo milk exist in some parts of the country.
There are slight variations in taste and consistency depending on the animal milk used (i.e., goat’s milk ricotta carries a grassier taste than others, whereas cow and sheep’s milk ricotta is much more rich and creamy), but you can generally expect a flavor with notes of both sweetness and bitterness and a creamy yet curdled texture.
You may also encounter specialty ricottas, such as ricotta salata (salted ricotta), ricotta al forno (baked ricotta), ricotta affumicata (smoked ricotta), and ricotta scanta (an artisanal variety); ricotta cheese is also now made from different types of milk, such as whole, part-skim, and light.
In more pedestrian culinary contexts, ricotta cheese is used in dishes like manicotti, ravioli, and lasagna, just to name a few.
What is cottage cheese?
Cottage cheese is a fresh, white, and soft cheese made up of curds that taste both mildly sour and savory.
Though cottage cheese is believed to be among the first cheeses made in America, European farmers had been making curdled cheeses for centuries.
When Europeans began immigrating to the United States, they continued their cheesemaking traditions, introducing Americans to a whole new world of culinary invention.
By the mid-19th century, cottage cheese was a staple in American homes.
Named for its popularity in country (cottage-home) living, cottage cheese is made by adding bacterial enzymes to milk; these enzymes produce a form of acid that causes milk solids (or a curd) to form, which are then cut, separated from the whey, pressed, rinsed, and salted.
Cottage cheese is now made by almost all major dairy brands and can be found in every grocery store dairy aisle, though you can certainly still make it fresh at home.
You can also find cottage cheese in variations like 2%, 4%, large curd, small curd, and with fruit like pineapple and berries.
The difference between 2% and 4% cottage cheese lies in the type of milk used to make it; that is, 2% cottage cheese is made with 2% milkfat (and considered low-fat), and 4% cottage cheese is made with 4% milk fat.
Information on curd size, however, is less clear.
Some sources assert that large curd cottage cheese is made with an enzyme called rennet, while small curd is made with a different type of acid or souring agent (like vinegar or lemon juice).
Others claim that the difference between large and small curd cottage cheese is only in the way they’re cut.
Whatever the case may be, large curd cottage cheese is known to have a sweeter and less acidic taste than small curd.
Cottage cheese is typically enjoyed by itself or with fresh fruit as a snack, and it’s also often paired with light meals like salads and sandwiches.
It’s also known as a great diet food, as it’s high in nutritional value and low in fat.
And let’s not forget cottage cheese’s place as an ingredient in delicious, savory recipes.
What’s the difference between cottage cheese and ricotta cheese?
From a layman’s perspective (mine), here’s the difference between cottage cheese and ricotta cheese:
- Cottage cheese is made of loose, smooth, white, salty lumps. In large curd, the lumps are a bit bigger than in small curd. You can turn over a plastic container of cottage cheese and it will come out like cooked mac n’ cheese and thickly cover the plate in a slight mound. At the time of this writing, a store brand 16-oz. container of large curd, 4% milkfat cottage cheese (I prefer it over small curd; I think it tastes creamier) is $1.99 USD, a dollar less per pound than ricotta.
How is ricotta cheese different from cottage cheese
- Ricotta is sweeter, denser, and grittier than cottage cheese. You can turn over a plastic container of ricotta upside down, and it will plop out onto the plate the same shape as the container and remain that way until you nudge it. At the time of this writing, a store brand, 15-oz. container of whole-milk ricotta is $2.99 USD where I live, so on average it’s a bit more expensive than cottage cheese.
As an Italian raised by an Italian-mix family, I can tell you both of these were used frequently in cooking everyday meals and for special occasions.
Our family recipe for lasagna used both of these cheeses.
Cottage cheese was sometimes served for lunch with a side of fruit, but ricotta was too pricey to be anything but a “filling” cheese, be it for desserts, pizza gaina (Easter Pie), or pasta.
So, does ricotta cheese taste the same as cottage cheese?
No, I don’t think so at all.
But let’s take a look at some of the nitty gritty details, and not just what I think.
And you can look at the differences between ricotta and cottage cheese for yourself.
While ricotta and cottage cheese certainly seem like they have a fair amount in common, there is plenty to distinguish them from one another.
First and foremost, they are made differently.
Ricotta cheese is made by allowing whey to ferment, cooking it to just short of a boil, and straining the curds through a cheesecloth.
Cottage cheese, on the other hand, is made when a curdling agent (usually acid-producing enzymes) is added to milk, and the curds formed are cut and processed.
Because of the differences in their production, the two cheeses also have distinct differences in appearance, taste, and texture.
Though both cheeses contain curds and are a natural white color, ricotta cheese is made up of very small and fine, almost grainy curds compared to the larger and lumpier curds in cottage cheese, giving it a smoother appearance and creamier texture.
When it comes to taste, ricotta cheese is sweeter than cottage cheese, as it contains much less salt.
Nutritionally speaking, cottage cheese contains less fat than ricotta, while ricotta contains less carbohydrates than cottage cheese, making each suitable for different types of diets.
Lastly, cottage cheese is generally used on a more day-to-day basis as it can be eaten alone as a snack or side dish, whereas ricotta is usually reserved as an ingredient in recipes – like Italian dishes.
However, you may choose to substitute cottage cheese for ricotta in certain recipes – as you’ll see in the next section.
Can you substitute ricotta cheese for cottage cheese?
As we’ve already hinted, the answer to this question is yes; you can substitute ricotta cheese for cottage cheese and vice versa.
Substitute ricotta for cottage cheese (or vice versa) in a 1:1 ratio, with the moisture removed as much as possible when using cottage cheese instead of ricotta.
Ricotta cheese and cottage cheese can be used interchangeably in almost any recipe that calls for one or the other – you just need to be aware of a couple of key differences.
Cottage cheese is more watery than ricotta, so if you’re using cottage cheese in place of ricotta, you’ll want to drain the liquid from the curds before adding the cheese to the recipe.
Most cottage cheese recipes actually recommend doing this so as not to make runny results.
Speaking of texture, the differences in this department between ricotta and cottage cheese don’t make them compatible for substitution in desserts where texture plays an important role – so you’re better off sticking to the recipe for those types of dishes.
You’ll also want to keep in mind that ricotta is sweeter than cottage cheese, so if you’re subbing out of necessity rather than preference, you may want to add a dash of salt to any recipe into which you sub ricotta.
We also mentioned that these two cheeses have different nutritional values, making each better suited to different nutritional goals.
For example, if you’re looking to make a lasagna or ravioli dish low-fat, you can use low-fat or small curd cottage cheese instead of ricotta; likewise, if your goal is to use fewer carbs in your filling, using ricotta in place of cottage cheese is an easy way to do so.
Substitute ricotta for cottage cheese (or vice versa) in a 1:1 ratio.
And, if you’re looking for a fun recipe to try out this substitution, this lasagna recipe that uses cottage cheese instead of ricotta is pretty darn good.
Ways to use ricotta cheese
Ricotta tends to be type-cast into heavy Italian dishes like stuffed shells and manicotti, but this cheese is actually much more versatile than its reputation lets on.
Don’t get me wrong; those savory, cheese-filled Italian dishes are always delicious, but there’s a whole world of ricotta recipes out there just waiting to be cooked and scarfed down.
If you’re looking for more creative ways to use ricotta, consider these suggestions.
1. Dollops onto your homemade pizza
Most people think of mozzarella as the one and only pizza cheese, but ricotta certainly gives it a run for its money.
Ricotta cheese gives a slice of pie a little extra something in the flavor profile as well as the texture.
Give this sausage and ricotta pizza a try—it has a bit of sweet from the ricotta and savory from the sausage.
2. Spread it on your toast
Move over, avocado; there’s a new toast in town.
Ricotta makes a great spread for toast and pairs well with both sweet and savory toppings from fruit to charcuterie.
And it just so happens we have a whole list of certifiably delightful ricotta toast recipes.
3. Bake it into a cheesecake
Ricotta’s natural sweetness makes it a great cheesecake contender.
It differs from the traditional cream cheese style cheesecake in that it’s light and fluffy rather than dense and rich.
It’s also super easy to make, especially when you use this 3-ingredient ricotta cheesecake recipe.
I made this Easy Ricotta Cake and it came out exactly (and deliciously) like the pictures: a cake layer and the ricotta custard layer.
4. Make a savory Italian Easter Pie
This is so rich that each serving is only a sliver of dense Italian meats and cheeses.
This is a savory pie with many names: Pizza Gaina, Pizza Rustica, and my family called it Italian Easter pie.
This recipe differs a bit as my family used fewer, cheaper ingredients and premade pie crusts, but this is the real deal, and it will serve a whole family.
Ways to use cottage cheese
While cottage cheese is a terrific anytime snack in and of itself, it’s also a winning ingredient in recipes from all types of cuisines.
Sure, you can dress it up by topping it with fruit or use it in pasta dishes, but you can also enjoy it in many other culinary contexts.
These cottage cheese suggestions will open your mind to new and exciting cottage cheese possibilities.
1. Make pancakes, waffles, and crepes with it
Who knew you could make the full gamut of breakfast goodies with good old-fashioned cottage cheese?
Cottage cheese helps pancakes, waffles, and crepes stay light and airy and gives them a depth of flavor these traditional breakfasts may not otherwise have.
Oh, and you can make muffins with cottage cheese, too.
2. Layer it into a fruit and granola parfait
If you’re not a big fan of yogurt but love fruit and granola, try replacing the yogurt with cottage cheese.
The parfait will still be light and creamy, and the curds in the cottage cheese will give it an extra layer of texture.
We’re keen on this breakfast cottage cheese fruit granola parfait recipe, but it’s an easy enough combo to whip something up on your own, too.
3. Bake it in a casserole
Sometimes it’s nice to give cottage cheese a break from heavy pasta recipes and bake it in something new and different.
This cheesy baked spinach casserole is just what the doctor ordered when you’re in the mood to mix it up.
Who knows, it might even make it into a regular rotation.
4. Stuff it into manicotti shells
It’s traditionally stuffed with ricotta, shredded mozzarella, and parmesan, but you can easily create a pan of stuffed manicotti and swap out the ricotta with that container of cottage cheese you accidentally picked up instead.
My CookingChew tip: Make it easy on yourself and stuff manicotti shells dry.
Yep, uncooked shells will stuff more easily.
Just use a fork and come at it from both ends.
Add an additional 1 cup of water and 1 extra cup of marinara sauce to the baking dish and cover tightly.
How long does ricotta cheese last?
When stored properly and kept in the refrigerator, unopened ricotta cheese will remain fresh until the date on the packaging, and opened ricotta cheese will remain fresh for about five days from the time it was opened.
Brands like Sargento and Organic Valley recommend these storage guidelines, and they are also specified by the USDA.
Commercially manufactured ricotta cheese comes in a plastic, air-tight container, so you can keep any unused ricotta in its container in the fridge.
You can also transfer your leftover ricotta to another air-tight container – plastic or glass or even a tightly sealed freezer bag – to be refrigerated until its next use (within the five-day timeframe, of course).
Homemade or fresh ricotta cheese should also be stored in an airtight plastic or glass container or a sealed freezer bag and refrigerated between uses and last around three to five days with proper storage.
Like all dairy products, if the cheese takes on a questionable appearance, smell, or taste, if any mold is present, or any other signs of spoiling occur, it’s a safe bet that the ricotta has gone bad and should not be consumed.
I’ve seen an odd pink color on the edges of my opened ricotta accompanied by an “off” odor that was my cue to toss it in the trash.
Can you freeze ricotta cheese?
There is varying information on whether or not you can freeze ricotta cheese, as it’s not recommended by most dairy brands or the USDA, but many food pros, including us, believe that you can freeze ricotta cheese as long as you follow a few important steps.
According to Frigo’s Kitchen Corner, the key to freezing ricotta and not ruining the consistency is to remove as much liquid as you can before freezing it by wrapping it in a paper towel or cheesecloth and squeezing tightly.
Once the excess liquid is drained from the ricotta, you should divide it into smaller portions, wrap it tightly in plastic wrap, and seal it in a freezer bag or air-tight container; the ricotta can then be stored in the freezer for two to three months.
Frozen ricotta can be moved to the refrigerator and left overnight or 24 hours to thaw.
Once thawed, you can simply stir and use as you would prior to freezing.
How long does cottage cheese last?
Unopened cottage cheese will maintain its freshness until the date on the container, and opened cottage cheese will last up to two weeks when stored properly in the refrigerator, according to USDA guidelines.
Daisy, one of the most well-known cottage cheese brands, recommends storing their cheese on the lower shelves of the refrigerator for optimal freshness.
Daisy also asserts that opened cottage cheese can be kept in its container; however, any plastic or glass air-tight container or tightly sealed freezer bag will do, if that is your preference.
Homemade cottage cheese should also be stored in a plastic or glass air-tight container or a sealed freezer bag and kept in the refrigerator for up to one week.
If you have any doubts about whether or not your cottage cheese has gone bad – changes in appearance, taste, or smell – discard it and do not eat it.
Can you freeze cottage cheese?
Similar to ricotta, freezing cottage cheese is not recommended by cottage cheese manufacturers or the USDA; however, there are also loopholes that make freezing cottage cheese possible.
That said, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
According to Healthline, when freezing cottage cheese, you should divide it into smaller portions and store it in an air-tight container or freezer bag; this container or bag can then be frozen and stored in the freezer for two to three months.
The consistency of cottage cheese doesn’t lend well to freezing, so you may notice some changes when it’s thawed.
Because of these textural changes, Healthline also recommends that frozen and thawed cottage cheese be used in recipes rather than eaten plain.
To thaw frozen cottage cheese, allow it to sit in the fridge overnight or for 24 hours; you can then stir the cheese and use it in any recipe you’d like.
Can you make ricotta cheese and cottage cheese at home?
Yes, you can absolutely make both ricotta cheese and cottage cheese at home.
Ricotta and cottage cheese may seem like complex cheeses to make, but they’re actually quite simple and easy – and similar – to whip up.
In fact, according to the Champagne Tastes food blog, homemade ricotta is essentially the same thing as homemade small curd cottage cheese.
For example, these recipes for homemade ricotta and homemade cottage cheese are nearly identical.
The product you’ll get from both of these recipes falls somewhere between ricotta and small curd cottage cheese.
So, no matter which recipe you choose, you’ll have a delicious curdled cheese to use in recipes or eat as a snack, all from the comfort of your own home with just a few ingredients.
The bottom line
Ricotta cheese and cottage cheese do share some key features, but their differences distinguish them enough to let each stand out in their own special way.
From differences in the way they’re made to flavor to recipe potential, each has special culinary strengths and weaknesses that make them perfect for their own purposes.
So the next time you’re staring down a tub of ricotta cheese and cottage cheese side-by-side in the dairy aisle, just wondering which to grab, the answer may just be both.