I was in the supermarket, scanning yogurt after yogurt after yogurt, when I stumbled upon ricotta. This wasn’t weird per se. Tubs of ricotta—for everything from honey-drizzled crostini to extra-cheesy lasagnas—are no stranger to the dairy aisle. But these weren’t big containers. They were single-serving containers, meant to be eaten as a snack.
Is this a thing?
Naturally, I had to find out—so I reached out to the company, RifRaf, and asked a million questions: Why ricotta? Why now? Why all the new-school flavors, like strawberry balsamic and meyer lemon and sun-dried tomato?
“The idea came to [CEO of Brooklyn-based creative agency Madwell] David Eisenman as he was snacking on some ricotta in his apartment,” RifRaf’s Chief Innovation Officer, William Hickox, told me. That’s when Eisenman had a thought: “Even though ricotta is a perfect snack, it really only comes in big tubs made for cooking.”
The two teamed up with Chris Sojka to create RifRaf, which is currently available in New York City–area Whole Foods, and is expanding to additional stores and locations soon. According to Hickox, ricotta is “the perfect antidote to yogurt fatigue.”
Yogurt fatigue? Says who? Yogurt has been America’s go-to dairy snack since the 1980s, and doesn’t seem to be settling down any time soon. Last year, Kim Severson at The New York Times wrote about the hopeful comeback of cottage cheese. But even with cottage cheese’s “new flavors and small-batch appeal,” she reports, “yogurt outsells cottage cheese by roughly eight to one.”
So does ricotta have a better shot?
For starters, it was never a diet fad like cottage cheese was in the mid 20th century. And while the earliest ricotta came about as a matter of convenience and resourcefulness—a way to use the leftover whey from cheese-making in Italy—modern varieties are all about texture and taste. Instead of starting with whey, many ricotta recipes and brands now turn to straight-up milk. RifRaf uses whole milk from grass-fed cows, while this popular Food52 recipe adds some cream for good measure.
Richness is another plus for ricotta. While low-fat and fat-free foods were all the rage in the mid 1970s, more recently that trend has swung in the opposite direction. The increasingly popular Keto diet hinges on high fat intake. And, according to Consumer Reports in 2017, “There has been an astounding 2,675 percent increase in the number of whole-milk yogurt products on store shelves in the past decade as consumers more and more perceive ‘whole’ products to be healthier.”
Full-fat dairy also just tastes better (feel free to @me). One of the signature brunch items at restaurant Prune in New York City is fresh ricotta, topped with raspberries, figs, toasted pine nuts, and honey. This is delicious, of course, but it also feels special. Just imagine that same dish with yogurt instead—still delicious, but ordinary.
Likewise, author Dorie Greenspan wrote about “Ricotta Spoonable” in her latest cookbook, Everyday Dorie. It’s ricotta plus olive oil, salt, pepper, and whatever herbs happen to be around. “It’s simple but special,” she writes. “A dollop of this on a cracker or sliced baguette makes a good appetizer; more of it on dark bread with roasted tomatoes, charred lemons or sliced cucumbers makes a tartine.” Which is to say, ricotta isn’t just an ingredient in a recipe anymore, it is the recipe.
In 2016, Epicurious published a whole guide on how to assemble a ricotta bowl, making the case for ricotta as an ever-customizable snack:
Basically anything yogurt can do, ricotta can do, too—especially if you're one of those Greek yogurt fans who loves the less-tangy taste and creamier texture of the strained stuff. Ricotta has even more pure dairy mildness, making it the perfect canvas for whatever toppings you like, at whatever time of day your hunger strikes.
In the article, author Adina Steiman guides readers through a slew of sweet and savory toppings—from toasted pistachios and dark chocolate to oven-roasted tomatoes and caramelized garlic—for breakfast, dessert, and just because.
For a lot of people, buying a tub of fresh ricotta and assembling mix-and-match bowls might be fun. But for other people (and, I imagine, more people), these combos are all the more appealing when they’re already assembled for you. Think of fruit-on-the-bottom yogurt. Or, think of RifRaf, whose current lineup of flavors, Hickox told me, “is just the start.”
Perhaps even more than yogurt and cottage cheese, ricotta is open to all sorts of fun toppings because home cooks have always viewed it as the creamy, dreamy ingredient you get when you’re about to make something delicious. Which is to say: Unlike yogurt and cottage cheese, ricotta isn't trying to convince anyone that it's good for you—because everyone already knows that it tastes good, period.
Will that be enough, though? We’ll see.