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Cheese of the Month - October 2016

Ricotta applications, trends expand beyond Italian dishes

Editor’s Note: “Cheese of the Month” is Cheese Market News’ exclusive profile series exploring various cheese types. Each month, CMN highlights a different cheese in this feature, giving our readers a comprehensive look at production, marketing, sales and in-depth aspects of each profiled cheese type. Please read on to learn about this month’s featured cheese: Ricotta.

By Stephanie Awe

MADISON, Wis. — Ricotta, with its milky, fresh flavor and a hint of sweetness, is a cheese with applications spreading beyond Italian dishes.

Ricotta was originally produced by Italian cheesemakers from the whey that remained after making Mozzarella and Provolone. The cheesemakers added lactic acid or vinegar to the whey and reheated it almost to boiling, a process that caused the curds to precipitate and rise to the surface, where they were skimmed off and drained, according to the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board.

Traditionally, about 5 to 10 percent milk may have typically been incorporated with the whey, according to John Jaeggi, cheese industry and applications coordinator, the Wisconsin Center for Dairy Research. In the United States today, however, it is becoming more mainstream for companies to use a higher whey to milk protein ratio, as doing so is believed to be more economical, he says.

Additionally, the process of Ricotta manufacture often includes the ultrafiltration of milk and whey to remove excess water before heating. The resulting curd also is homogenized to help incorporate stabilizers, which help hold more moisture and prevent water from running off the cheese, Jaeggi says.

As a result of higher amounts of whey protein, along with homogenization, the Ricotta develops a more cooked flavor, is sweeter and has a very fine mealy curd structure, almost like a “curdy Mascarpone,” Jaeggi says.

In addition, manufacturers are more commonly using dried sweet whey, whey protein concentrate and nonfat dry milk powders to produce Ricotta, which also result in a sweeter flavor due to the lactose found in the products, Jaeggi says.

While recipes vary from company to company, more milk in the cheese creates more curd definition.

Whole milk, compared to reduced-fat or skim milk, creates the fluffiest Ricotta due to its higher fat content, Jaeggi says.

• Ricotta varieties

Ricotta comes in several varieties and forms. In addition to Ricotta made from cow’s milk, there is sheep’s milk Ricotta, which is high in salt and often used atop pastas. Among other forms is Ricotta Salata, a dried Ricotta used for grating and topping on foods that can be made from the whey of both sheep’s milk and cow’s milk, according to Jaeggi.

Impastata Ricotta, another form that is known for higher fat levels and full flavor, is offered by Saputo Cheese, Lincolnshire, Illinois, according to Sandy Goldberg, vice president of business development, Saputo Cheese USA Inc.

Meanwhile, hand-dipped Ricotta traditionally requires the cheesemaker to dip the curd into cloth and then drain the cheese before placing it into a container for sale, Jaeggi says. Ricottas made by using more milk and/or utilizing hand-dipped methods are often found in specialty cheese shops and in restaurants.

At Maplebrook Farm, Bennington, Vermont, the company’s Ricotta Alta and Hand-Dipped Ricotta are hand-dipped and drained and are made only from whole milk from cows, vinegar and salt, according to John Peck, operations manager, Maplebrook.

For hand dipping, Maplebrook uses 140-gallon kettles that were built in 1946. The company does not use automated equipment in an effort to stick with traditional methods and maintain authenticity, according to Mike Scheps, co-owner, Maplebrook.

• Production and retail sales

About 243 million pounds of Ricotta were produced in the United States in 2015, a 0.8-percent decrease from 2014, according to the USDA’s Dairy Products 2015 Summary published in April 2016.

Volume sales of Ricotta have declined or plateaued annually since 2011 (fixed weight only, U.S. multi-outlet and convenience stores). However, 2016 retail sales have rebounded, with the variety growing at almost 6 percent as of Sept. 4 this year, according to Information Resources Inc. (IRI) data courtesy of Dairy Management Inc.

As of Sept. 4, Ricotta’s average price has dropped compared to 2015, hitting a two-year low point in April before increasing again in May, according to the data. In addition, Ricotta’s distribution spiked slightly during the 2015 holiday season.

About 24.4 percent of U.S. households are purchasing Ricotta, a number that has slightly increased over the past year due to more trial and repeat consumers (latest 52 weeks ending Sept. 4, 2016), the IRI data says.

Maplebrook has noticed retail growth in its Ricotta cheeses in about the past year, Peck says, noting that its health benefits, such as its high protein content, may have contributed to its recent heightened sales.

Biazzo Dairy Products Inc., Ridgefield, New Jersey, also sees strong retail demand for the company’s Ricotta.

“What’s really helped with retail are the cooking shows you see on TV, and now added to that social media,” says John Iapichino Jr., executive vice president, Biazzo, noting that he has seen recipes incorporating Ricotta through his Facebook news feed.

In addition to television and social media, the decrease of milk prices has helped Ricotta’s retail popularity increase, Iapichino says. The product is more affordable now than before, meaning consumers are more likely to purchase two packs of Ricotta instead of one.

• Applications and trends

Ricotta, while traditionally used in various Italian dishes, such as lasagna, manicotti and ravioli, is a cheese with many applications.

“People are waking up to the fact that it is so versatile,” says Johann Englert, co-owner, Maplebrook.

For example, consumers are using the cheese at breakfast, spreading it on toast sprinkled with sugar and cinnamon or adding it to scrambled eggs, she says.

Englert adds that she, personally, enjoys using it when making gnocchi.

“It’s delicious,” she says.

Maplebrook also distributes its Ricotta to restaurants along the East Coast, where chefs are seeking new ways to utilize the cheese in their recipes.

Currently, it is popular for chefs to incorporate the cheese into appetizers, such as one that pairs the cheese with oil, vinegar and fresh salt on crackers, Englert says.

With its clean taste, the cheese also can be used as a pizza topping or in dips and spreads for entertaining and snacking occasions, Goldberg says, adding that the cheese can be incorporated as a filling in desserts as well.

Iapichino says he sees Ricotta traditionally used in Italian cheesecake, although he increasingly has seen consumers starting to pair the cheese with fruit. Especially with the trend of combining fruit and Greek yogurt, he says he has noticed Ricotta become another popular protein option that can replace yogurt.

Along with fruit, he notes that he has noticed consumers incorporate Ricotta in cookies or pancake batter. On social media, he has noticed recipes that add Ricotta to meatballs and various types of cakes.

Along with sales segments in retail, foodservice and co-packing, Biazzo sells its Ricotta to food manufacturers who use the cheese as an ingredient in their products, which include pastas and desserts.
• Innovations and marketing tactics

With high interest in the product, cheese companies continue to innovate and develop new varieties and uses.

Maplebrook, for example, is in research and development stages for creating a whey-based Ricotta in order to offer a more traditional, lower fat Ricotta variety, Peck says.

The whey-based Ricotta is expected to be available in 10-pound and 30-pound formats in 2017.

In addition, the company will be moving into a new facility in November, allowing more space for production while utilizing its older facility for aging rooms or additional space to make small batch specialty products. The new facility also may add a retail shop for Maplebrook’s and other Vermont cheeses, Peck says.

Biazzo, which currently offers whey-based Ricottas with whole, part-skim or fat-free milk as well as a whole milk Ricotta with no salt added, has introduced a new Ricotta product that contains only milk, vinegar and salt, due in part to the growth of consumers looking for “clean labels,” Iapichino says.

He adds that while most of the company’s retail sales are east of the Mississippi River, its Ricotta varieties have gained traction west of the river, as consumers have demonstrated a liking for the product’s flavor and texture profile.

To gain consumers’ attention and enthusiasm for the product in store, Biazzo works directly with retailers to execute marketing strategies, such as grouping its Ricotta with pasta and a jar of Italian sauce to give shoppers a recipe idea, Iapichino says.

At Saputo, the company markets differently across its sales segments, which include retail, foodservice and industrial.

The company continues to market recipes that reflect various rising trends in foodservice, but it oftentimes markets Ricotta as a lasagna component in retail.

“On the retail side, we are reaching more aspiring at-home chefs who appreciate that Ricotta can be used to make more sophisticated dishes,” Goldberg says.

To tie in with this trend, the company recently ran a Frigo brand promotion that gave consumers an opportunity to win high-end cookware and cooking classes. Saputo’s most popular variety, whole-milk Ricotta, is available under its Frigo, Dragone and Stella brands, Goldberg says.

In addition, the company aims to tie into regional Ricotta preferences. With its Dragone brand being popular in New England, the company recently sponsored a food and wine festival in Boston and hosted a Dragone tasting tent, where attendees could try product samples and recipes.

“Ricotta has been a relatively flat category for years, but it has shown slight growth recently,” Goldberg says, adding that in future years he expects sales to stay flat or exhibit slight growth.

“While there seems to be some potential for growth in alternative usages such as dips, spreads and appetizers, that growth could be offset by declines in lasagna consumption related to changes in cooking habits and skills,” Goldberg says. “Lasagna remains the major driver of Ricotta consumption.”

On the other hand, Iapichino anticipates sales could further increase as consumers and manufacturers continue to look for more healthy, “clean” meal options — a trend that may extend into the coming years.

Along with health factors, Ricotta’s broadening array of applications may contribute to a potential increase in future sales.

“It has become very popular lately,” Englert says. “There is an increasing demand from the public for this particular cheese because of its versatility and delicious taste.”

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