Yogurt cheese and ricotta cheese aren't as widely known or consumed as other varieties of fermented curd, but they're more than worth a try if you're looking for less fattening alternatives.
“The primary priority for dietary change is to reduce intake of total fats ... At present, dietary fat accounts for about 37 percent of the total energy intake of Americans — well above the recommended upper limit of 30 percent.” — The Surgeon General's Report on Nutrition and Health
DAMN. You realize, of course, what the Surgeon General is meddling with. Our fried chicken. Our hamburgers. Our chocolate. Our cheese. Cheese?
You betcha. An ounce of Cheddar has 113 calories and nine grams of fat. At nine calories per gram, this venerable English cheese gets 72 percent of its calories from fat. Colby and Monterey also weigh in at nine grams of fat per ounce, Gouda and Edam at eight. All are prime candidates for the nutritional hit list.
Yet who wants to give up cheese? Americans love it. In fact, we've almost doubled our consumption in the last 15 years, up to an average of 26 pounds per person per year. And cheese is a fine food — flavorful, versatile and affordable, a good source of protein, calcium, riboflavin and vitamin A. How then are we to heed the warnings of the Surgeon General and the USDA and the American Heart Association and the American Cancer Society — all of whom are trumpeting the evils of fat — and still keep cheese on our tables?
There's always evasive action — cutting fat from other parts of our diet. (After all, the issue is total intake, not the percentage in any given food.) We can (shudder) reduce the size of our servings, sprinkling cheese over the top of a casserole rather than mixing it throughout, and never, ever order a pizza with double cheese.
And we can learn to love some leaner, lesser known cheeses — for example, part-skim ricotta cheese and yogurt cheese. On the average, Americans consume only two-thirds of
a pound of ricotta each year, and yogurt cheese is even more of a novelty. Yet, lower in fat though they are, both these cheeses are rich and delicious enough for the most dedicated caseophile.
Smooth, white, and fluffy, with a mild, slightly sweet taste, ricotta is usually found in the dairy section of the supermarket, packed in one-pound plastic tubs.
Italian by birth, ricotta is a traditional whey cheese. In the production of hard cheeses such as provolone, milk is coagulated with rennet, an enzyme that causes the casein, a milk protein, to clump together and form a solid curd — leaving the sweetish, liquid whey. Pressed and ripened, the curd becomes hard cheese. Disinclined to waste perfectly good food, the Italians turned that leftover whey into ricotta. Italian brands are still made from 100 percent whey.
These days, ricotta is also made in central and southern Europe and in North America, especially Wisconsin, New York, Ontario, and Quebec. North American ricotta is made from a mixture of whey and milk, either whole or part-skim. (A few companies use all milk; most experts argue that, by definition, without whey it isn't ricotta but something closer to the Mexican queso blanco.)
In a simple manufacturing process, the whey and milk are combined in an open kettle and heated to between 180 and 186 degrees Fahrenheit. Acid — lactic, acetic, or citric — is added and the mixture stirred briefly. Under the combined heat and acidification, the lactalbumin, another milk protein, coagulates and floats to the top. This curd is scooped off and drained overnight. Unlike hard cheeses, which must ripen for months, ricotta is a fresh cheese, ready to pack.
Because it's very moist, ricotta is highly perishable. The expiration dates stamped on the cartons are often wildly optimistic; look for a pull date substantially later than the date of purchase. Fresh cheese is snow-white and has virtually no scent; yellowish, sour ricotta is just as unmistakable as sour milk, and just about as appetizing.
What about nutrition? Although whole-milk ricotta is a delicious addition to the menu, it offers little nutritional advantage over your favorite hard cheese. Look for the part-skim, then check out the calories and fat; brands vary markedly. Frequently, an ounce of part-skim has about 30 calories and two grams of fat. One of the leanest on the market is labeled "lite" ricotta; one ounce has 25 calories and one gram of fat. While it's less rich and a little grainier than other part-skim cheeses with higher fat contents, it's still excellent (and gets only 36 percent of its calories from fat).
Strictly speaking, it's unfair to compare ricotta and, say, Cheddar on an ounce-for-ounce basis, since the serving sizes are usually different. Although you might eat an ounce of ricotta in a dip, you're more likely to eat four ounces in a main dish. Still, if you compare a normal two-ounce serving of hard cheese with a normal four-ounce serving of ricotta, the savings remain significant.
Predictably, ricotta is most common in Italian cooking, but it's too good to restrict to one ethnic style. If you're going to try only one or two ricotta recipes, we recommend Herbed Ricotta Spread or Stuffed Manicotti. If you don't like those, you probably aren't going to like this cheese.
For centuries, yogurt cheese has been a staple of Eastern and Mediterranean cooking. At banquets and celebrations in western India, the dessert of choice is shrikhand, sweetened yogurt cheese that's spiced with saffron and cardamom and topped with pistachios. For breakfast, the Lebanese spread the cheese on pita bread and sprinkle it with olive oil. Greek farmers mix it with chopped cucumbers for lunch. Yet, outside of Middle Eastern cookbooks and an occasional newspaper article, it has received little attention in the West.
Glossy white, smooth, rich, and creamy, yogurt cheese is the consistency of velvety whipped cream cheese. Its taste is mildly tart, somewhere between cream cheese and sour cream, although that varies with the yogurt from which the cheese is made: Sweet flavors (such as vanilla and lemon) produce sweet cheese. Whatever its base, it looks, tastes, and feels as if it's loaded with fat.
It isn't. Look at the figures for one ounce: made from nonfat yogurt, 20 calories and no fat; made from low-fat yogurt, 25 calories and three-quarters of a gram of fat; made from vanilla low-fat, 31 calories and nine-tenths of a gram of fat. Both low-fats get less than 30 percent of their calories from fat.
A homemade product, this cheese is child's play to produce. Since the milk has already been acidified by yogurt-making bacteria, all that's left is to drain off the whey. Leave yogurt in a fine sieve for eight to 36 hours, and you've got cheese. The timing is imprecise and a matter of preference: The longer the draining, the more whey is released, and the thicker the cheese. The most common time — 10 to 12 hours, or overnight — produces equal portions of whey and cheese.
The simplest approach is to buy an inexpensive (about $10) yogurt strainer, typically a plastic funnel lined with fine mesh. Spoon the yogurt into the funnel, prop the funnel in a container such as a Mason jar or two-cup measure, cover the top with plastic wrap, and refrigerate. Available in some kitchen specialty shops, yogurt funnels can also be mail-ordered from cheese supply companies, such as New England Cheesemaking Supply Co. http://www.cheesemaking.com/
In the absence of a special tool, line a colander with several layers of cheesecloth, and add the yogurt, pushing it up the sides to maximize drainage. Set the colander in a pan to catch the whey (if the colander doesn't have legs, put it on a rack), cover the whole outfit with plastic wrap, and refrigerate it.
Cheese can be made from plain or flavored yogurts, from nonfat, low-fat or whole-milk types, and from most commercial brands. Just make sure the yogurt contains no gelatin (check the list of ingredients), which holds the whey in suspension and prevents it from draining off. As with ricotta, freshness matters. As yogurt gets older, it gets tarter and more likely to produce a sour-tasting cheese. Try to buy well in advance of the pull date if you want sweeter cheese.
Once you've made yogurt cheese, what do you do with it? With added herbs, flavorings, and other ingredients, it can form the basis for everything from dips and spreads to pies and cheesecakes.
If you've tried and failed for years to like yogurt on your baked potato, try herbed yogurt cheese; it's better. It's also good with raw vegetables, crackers, or bread, or atop a spicy taco. Just add dried or fresh minced herbs to plain yogurt cheese in any combination you like, along with some salt and perhaps some freshly ground black pepper; let it sit for at least an hour, so the flavors can blend (overnight is better). Some suggestions: basil and garlic, chives and parsley, cilantro and cumin, tarragon, lots of fresh dill, a hefty amount of crushed or very coarsely ground black peppercorns or crushed green peppercorns. Or try some minced smoked salmon, chopped chives, and a little Dijon-style mustard. If the cheese tastes underflavored, add more of the herb and allow it to sit awhile longer.
Whatever you add, do it gently; Vigorous stirring causes the cheese to thin out. If you're going to try only one yogurt cheese recipe, start with Strawberries Romanoff. You'll be hooked for life — even if you have no intention of being bullied by the health establishment.
And now, our recipes. These should keep you occupied for awhile!
Editor's Note: All four yogurt cheese recipes are reprinted from Not Just Cheesecake! The Low-Fat, Low-Cholesterol, Low-Calorie, Great Dessert Cookbook, by Marilyn Stone el al (© 1988 by Triad Publishing Co.). Despite its title, this paperback contains recipes for 24 cheesecakes, as well as 34 pies and numerous dips, sauces and frozen desserts.