Here’s all about the similarities and differences between ricotta and cream cheese. Learn how they differ and when you can substitute one for the other.
So a recipe calls for ricotta cheese, and the closest you can get is cream cheese. Can you substitute cream cheese for ricotta?
Or maybe you wanted to make some appetizers with cream cheese, but you only got ricotta on hand. And you’re wondering if you can use it instead.
If either sounds familiar, or you’d like to learn how ricotta and cream cheese compare regarding taste, texture, uses, nutrition, or production, you’re in the right place.
Let’s dive right in.
Table of Contents
- When to Substitute
- Ricotta vs. Cream Cheese: Differences and Similarities
When to Substitute
Despite being quite different in terms of nutrition and production process, you can use cream cheese and ricotta interchangeably in many recipes, which is great news if you have one but need the other.
Can I Use Cream Cheese Instead of Ricotta?
You can use cream cheese instead of ricotta, but keep in mind that cream cheese is much richer and thicker. You might want to add a splash of milk to loosen it up a bit. Also, cream cheese is saltier and a bit tangy, so the resulting dish will taste slightly different.
The difference in flavor might be perfectly fine for some dishes, but some might come out too salty. To help combat that, consider reducing the amount of salt or salty ingredients to better balance out the taste.
If it’s possible to taste as you go, start with half the salt you normally use and add more if needed. Of course, it’s not always that simple, especially if your primary source of salt is something like soy sauce.
As usual with substitutions, it’s best to know the ins and outs of the dish you’re preparing. This way, you should have a rough idea of how to adjust the proportions of other ingredients to get the dish where you want it to go.
Alternatively, try finding a similar recipe that uses cream cheese instead of ricotta, and use it instead. That shouldn’t be an issue for dips, spreads, salads, and casseroles.
And even if you want to stick with your recipe, at least take a close look at the ingredient lists of those alternative recipes. They should give you some idea of how to adjust yours.
Can I Sub Cream Cheese for Ricotta in Lasagna?
You can use cream cheese instead of ricotta in lasagna. When doing so, make sure you first soften the cream cheese so it’s easy to spread it over the lasagna noodles.
Or, if your recipe includes eggs, mix the eggs with cream cheese, and spread that mixture over the noodles.
The taste and texture of both cheeses are slightly different, but it’s not a big deal when making lasagna. The dish likely includes other cheeses (such as parmesan) and tomato sauce, both of which tend to dominate the overall flavor.
In other words, the lasagna won’t taste exactly the same as if using ricotta, but the difference won’t be that big. And who knows, you might like it better than the original.
Can I Substitute Ricotta for Cream Cheese?
Using ricotta instead of cream cheese works well in many recipes. To make ricotta resemble cream cheese more, drain the water using a fine mesh strainer or a cheesecloth (or both), and whip it using a stand mixer or a rubber spatula.
Ricotta is more grainy than cream cheese, and it will continue to be so even after the mentioned treatment. But the two should be reasonably close texture-wise.
And if you need a bit of tang that ricotta lacks, adding a splash of lemon or lime juice should help. You might also consider adding a few tablespoons of heavy cream to make the ricotta richer and creamier. Use a blender, food processor, or hand mixer to combine.
Prepared that way, ricotta as a cream cheese substitute should work well in spreads, salads, dips, and casseroles.
But if you need cream cheese for a cake icing or frosting, you’ll probably be better off subbing mascarpone for cream cheese instead. It’s basically a richer and sweeter version of it.
Ricotta vs. Cream Cheese: Differences and Similarities
Now that you know when subbing one for the other makes sense, let’s talk about the similarities and differences between the two in more detail.
Taste and Texture
The taste and texture of both cheeses are fairly similar but have some notable differences. Here’s how they compare:
Cream cheese has much more fat than ricotta, which makes it rich, dense, and spreadable. Ricotta has a lot more water, making it grainy.
But if you drain the ricotta and whip it, as mentioned in the section on subbing, it becomes quite similar to cream cheese in terms of texture. You’ll still be able to tell the difference just by looking at it, though.
Taste-wise, cream cheese is slightly tangy but pretty mild overall. Ricotta lacks that tanginess and is somewhat sweet instead. That’s why I suggest stirring a bit of lemon juice into your ricotta if you want to make it more cream cheese-like.
(When it comes to taste, ricotta is fairly similar to mascarpone, an Italian cream cheese.)
Because of those similarities, both kinds of cheese are used in similar dishes. And if you’re short on one of them, you can usually find a similar recipe that uses the other.
Let’s talk about how both are used.
|Lasagna, ravioli, and other pasta dishes||Slathering on bread, bagels, toasts|
|Melting on pizza, calzone, etc.||Creamy salads, spreads, and dips|
|Dips (whipped ricotta + herbs & aromatics)||Cake icing and frosting|
|Spreading on bagels, baguettes, flatbreads||Adding richness and creaminess to soups|
|Pancakes, crepe filling|
Both cream cheese and ricotta are quite versatile and are used in both sweet and savory dishes, though ricotta is most commonly used in savory ones.
Both cheeses taste great slathered on bread, bagels, and other baked goods. They also work well in dips, spreads, and salads.
Casseroles and pasta dishes are other areas where the two shine, though it’s easier to find a pasta dish with ricotta than with cream cheese. It might have something to do with ricotta originating in Italy, while cream cheese comes from the US.
The area where cream cheese is a much better option than ricotta is cake toppings. Ricotta is grainy and fluffy (even after draining and whipping), and it’s just not a great fit for icings and frostings.
Sure, you can use it in a pinch, but the results probably won’t be all that great. So instead, I suggest you look for a different frosting recipe for which you actually have the ingredients. Chances are it’ll work out much better.
The macronutrient profiles of ricotta and cream cheese are quite different. Here’s what they look like (per 100g):
|(per 100g)||Ricotta [source]||Cream cheese [source]|
|Energy||158 kcal||343 kcal|
The crucial difference between ricotta and cream cheese, nutrition-wise, is the fat content. Full-fat cream cheese has about three times more fat than full-fat milk ricotta.
That makes cream cheese much creamier instead of fluffy and grainy.
Of course, there’s the reduced-fat cream cheese that has about half the fat of the full-fat variety, but that’s still noticeably more than ricotta contains.
The amounts of protein, fat, and carbs in ricotta vary a bit between different brands, but the numbers are usually similar to what you can see in the table above.
The difference in fat content drives the difference in overall calories as cream cheese typically has more than double the calories of ricotta.
So if you’re looking for a simple way to reduce calories in your meals, sub in ricotta for cream cheese whenever possible. And when a direct substitution doesn’t work particularly well, find a similar recipe that uses the Italian cheese instead.
When it comes to the production of ricotta and cream cheese, the two aren’t anything alike.
Cream cheese is made the same way most cheeses are, meaning a combination of milk and cream is curdled, and that curd is collected, processed, and packaged as cheese.
Ricotta is quite different, as it’s cheese made from whey. The same whey that gets drained after curdling the milk. In other words, ricotta is often produced as a byproduct of cheese making, not as the “main” dairy product.
Here’s how a ricotta production process might look like:
- The creamery curdles the milk (e.g., by adding rennet).
- The curds are strained and used to make cheese (e.g., mozzarella). The liquid that’s been strained is called whey.
- The whey is combined with some salt, water, milk, and fermented whey. Then it’s heated, and it curdles once again.
- The curds go to the surface and are collected, and that’s how your ricotta is made.
There are also recipes for homemade ricotta, which you can make by heating non-UHT milk with some acid, such as vinegar or lemon juice. Here’s an example recipe.
The cheese you make this way isn’t “real” ricotta (as it’s not made from whey), but it’s a good ricotta substitute. So if you don’t have ricotta on hand but got a few bottles of not ultra-pasteurized milk and feel so inspired, go make your own.