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Whole-Milk Ricotta Cheese

Published November 2016

How we tested

As any Italian grandmother knows, the importance of good ricotta cannot be overstated. It’s the key ingredient in dishes like lasagna, stuffed pastas, cannoli, and cheesecake. A good ricotta should be both creamy and dense, with a fresh dairy flavor. Unfortunately, many products miss the mark, with grainy or watery textures and funky off-flavors. We’ve had good luck with local products in the past, but we wanted to find a quality ricotta that’s easy to find in supermarkets across the country. We scooped up four, priced from $0.20 to $0.47 per ounce, focusing on whole-milk ricottas because we typically rely on whole-milk ricotta when developing recipes in the test kitchen and because whole-milk ricottas generally offer better flavor and texture than lower-fat options. We tasted them plain and in baked manicotti.

Texture stood out in the plain tasting. Tasters were critical of an organic product that had large, visible curds with a “wet,” “cottage cheese”–like consistency; most found the “granular” texture unappealing. At the other end of the spectrum, the remaining three samples were pleasantly smooth and creamy. As for flavor, we preferred those that tasted mildly sweet to those with a slight tang. Baking the ricotta in manicotti with tomato sauce helped level the playing field for flavor but not for texture: That curd-y sample remained too “grainy” or “lumpy” for most tasters, while the smoother samples got high marks. Our favorite stood out with an “ultracreamy,” pleasantly dense consistency and a clean, fresh flavor. How to explain our preferences? The fat levels were similar, between 6 and 8 grams per serving. Sodium didn’t offer obvious clues; the ricottas with the most sodium fell in first and fourth places. Looking for answers, we investigated the production methods.

In Italy, traditional ricotta is made with whey (a natural byproduct of cheese making), which is heated with a small amount of acid to coagulate it and form curds, and seasoned with salt. Ideally, the curds are then scooped by hand rather than by machine so that they don’t break or become tough and are carefully placed in containers. But here in the United States, the Food and Drug Administration doesn’t regulate the ingredients or production methods for ricotta, and all those rules go out the window.

For starters, many U.S. manufacturers replace some or all of the whey with milk—the two products in our lineup that don’t use any whey scored lowest (one is still recommended). Whey can be either sweet or acidic, so we asked the manufacturers of our two favorites which type they used. We learned that they are both mostly made using a sweet whey from mozzarella production and only a small amount of milk. The lactose (sugar) in whey gives it a sweet taste and, in contrast to the two products without whey, both of the ricottas made with whey had a subtle sweetness that tasters preferred in both tastings.

Handling is another factor that likely made a difference in our preferences. Ricotta’s texture is fragile; the loose aggregation of proteins in its delicate curds can be broken apart if they’re handled too much or too roughly. Scooping ricotta by hand is labor-intensive and time-consuming, so it’s generally reserved for high-end products rather than supermarket ricotta. While none of our contenders is hand-scooped, the manufacturer of our winner uses a special pump that packages the ricotta slowly and gently to avoid compromising its texture.

Ultimately, we recommend three of the four products we tasted, but our top choice, BelGioioso Ricotta con Latte Whole Milk, has a pleasant sweetness and a “supercreamy” texture that our tasters loved. It also has noticeably more flavor-enhancing sodium than our runner-up, which tasters appreciated. It was our clear favorite.

Methodology

Twenty-one America’s Test Kitchen editors and test cooks sampled four nationally available whole-milk ricotta cheeses, served plain and in baked manicotti. Ingredient lists came from product packaging. The companies used a variety of serving sizes, so we based our nutrition information on a 62-gram portion, which equates to roughly 1/4 cup.

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The Results

Winner
Recommended

Skippy Peanut Butter

In a contest that hinged on texture, tasters thought this "smooth, "creamy" sample was "swell" and gave it top honors, both plain and baked into cookies. Its rave reviews even compensated for a slightly "weak" nut flavor that didn't come through as well as that of other brands in the pungent satay sauce.

$2.39 for 16.3-oz. jar (15 cents per oz.)*
Recommended

Jif Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The big favorite in satay sauce, this peanut butter's "dark, roasted flavor"—helped by the addition of molasses—stood out particularly well against the other heady ingredients, and it made cookies with "nice sweet-salty balance." Plus, as the top-rated palm oil-based sample, it was "creamy," "thick," and better emulsified than other "natural" contenders.

$2.29 for 18-oz. jar (13 cents per oz.)*

Reese's Peanut Butter

This is what peanut butter should be like, " declared one happy taster, noting specifically this product's "good," "thick" texture and "powerful peanut flavor." In satay sauce, however, some tasters felt that heavier body made for a "pasty" end result.

$2.59 for 18-oz. jar (14 cents per oz.)*

Skippy Natural Peanut Butter Spread

The only other palm oil-based peanut butter to make the "recommended" cut, this contender had a "looser" texture than its winning sibling but still won fans for being "super-smooth." Tasters thought it made an especially "well-balanced," "complex" peanut sauce.

$2.39 for 15-oz. jar (16 cents per oz.)*
Recommended with Reservations

Peanut Butter & Co. No-Stir Natural Smooth Operator

Though it says "no-stir" on the label, this "stiff" palm-oil enriched peanut butter was "weeping oil" and came across as "greasy" to some tasters. However, it turned out a respectable batch of cookies—"chewy in the center, crisp and short at the edge"—and made "perfectly good" satay sauce.

$4.49 for 18-oz. jar (25 cents per oz.)*

Maranatha Organic No Stir Peanut Butter

On the one hand, this organic peanut butter produced cookies that were "soft and sturdy" yet "moist," with "knockout peanut flavor." On the other hand, eating it straight from the jar was nearly impossible; its "loose," "liquid-y," and "dribbly" consistency had one taster wonder if it was "peanut soup."

$5.69 for 16-oz. jar (36 cents per oz.)*
Not Recommended

Smart Balance All Natural Rich Roast Peanut Butter

Besides being unpalatably "tacky" and "sludgy," this "natural" peanut butter suffered from an awful "fishy" flavor with a "weird acidic aftertaste" that tasters noted in all three applications. Our best guess as to the culprit? The inclusion of flax seed oil, an unsaturated fat that's highly susceptible to rancidity.

$3.59 for 16-oz. jar (22 cents per oz.)*

Smucker's Natural Peanut Butter

With its only additive a negligible amount of salt, the only truly natural peanut butter in the lineup elicited comments ranging from mild dissatisfaction ("needs enhancement with salt and sugar") to outright disgust ("slithery," "chalky," "inedible"). Cookies were "dry and crumbly" with a "hockey puck" texture, and the satay sauce was "stiff," "gritty," and "gloopy."

$2.69 for 16-oz. jar (17 cents per oz.)*