There aren't a lot of comfort foods more fulfilling than a cheesy dish of lasagna. But if you're trying to eat healthier, the traditional version might not fall in line with your goals. Luckily, you can make some swaps, like using a cottage cheese replacement for the ricotta cheese.
While making the swap may make your lasagna different from your mom's, cottage cheese lasagna actually tastes just like the "real" thing and it's lower in calories, fat and carbohydrates. But you don't have to stop there, you can also make some other healthy swaps to really up the nutritional value of your delicious creation.
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Cottage Cheese vs. Ricotta Cheese
Cottage cheese and ricotta cheese may seem like they're really similar, but they're actually a lot different. Ricotta cheese was originally created in Italy as a way to use leftover liquid whey — one of the major proteins in milk — after the cheese-making process. It's soft with a grainy texture and has a slightly sweet taste.
On other other hand, cottage cheese is made mostly of curds, with cream added to them. Unlike the whey, which is the liquid part of the cheese-making process, the curds are solid pieces of protein that form when something acidic, like lemon juice, is added. Cottage cheese comes in different curd sizes, including small curd, medium curd and large curd. Although the texture of all three varieties is different from ricotta cheese, small curd is the closest substitute you'll get.
Nutrition in the Cheeses
Before jumping into how to use cottage cheese as a ricotta substitute, you might want to know why it's a good choice. Cottage cheese is lower in total and saturated fat, calories and carbohydrates than ricotta cheese. It's also thinner and a little less dense, so it gives you a lighter finished product that might not feel so heavy in your stomach.
For reference, the USDA's FoodData Central indicates that a cup of 2 percent cottage cheese has:
- 183 calories
- 24 grams of protein
- 5 grams of total fat
- 3 grams of saturated fat
- 11 grams of carbohydrate
The same-size cup of whole-milk ricotta cheese contains:
- 369 calories
- 28 grams of protein
- 25 grams of fat
- 16 grams of saturated fat
- 18 grams of carbohydrate
You can choose part-skim ricotta cheese instead of whole to cut the fat content down to 19.5 grams of total fat and 12 grams of saturated fat. Opting for the part-skim variety also lowers the calories slightly to 339 per cup.
Making the Ricotta Substitute Swap
Swapping the ricotta cheese in your lasagna for cottage cheese is really simple: All you have to do is replace the ricotta cheese with equal parts cottage cheese. That means, if your recipe calls for 1 cup of ricotta and you want to swap it all out, you would use 1 cup of cottage cheese instead. If you want to use a blend of the cheeses, you just have to make sure that your total is equivalent to the amount that the recipe calls for.
So if the recipe calls for 1 cup of ricotta cheese and you want to replace half of it, you would use 1/2 cup of ricotta cheese and 1/2 cup of cottage cheese. Or you could use 3/4 cup cottage cheese and 1/4 cup ricotta cheese — whatever combination works best for you.
Keep in mind that cottage cheese is a little runnier than ricotta, which holds it shape better, so your lasagna may be a little soupier than if you used only ricotta, but you can combat this change in texture with a few tricks.
Perfecting the Texture
Since cottage cheese is lumpier than ricotta, the first thing you can do is smooth it out a little by running it through a food processor or pulsing it in a blender. To do this, start with small-curd cottage cheese, which is closer in texture to ricotta than the large curd variety. Measure out what you need, and slowly pulse it in a food processor or blender until the chunks start to break up a little bit. It doesn't have to be completely smooth, but just enough so there aren't lots of big chunks.
When you're done smoothing out your cottage cheese, transfer it to a fine cheesecloth or a nut milk bag and squeeze out as much water as you can. Cottage cheese is thinner than ricotta cheese, but you can thicken it a bit by removing the excess moisture. Once the excess moisture is removed, you can use it just like you would ricotta cheese — and the texture will be closer now.
After you cook the lasagna, you can also thicken it by allowing it to sit for at least 10 minutes to cool down a bit before cutting into it. This lets the lasagna firm up and makes it less likely that you'll end up with a runny finished product.
Other Healthy Swaps
If you want even healthier lasagna, you can make other swaps as well. Lower the overall carbohydrate count significantly by using zucchini noodles — or "zoodles." To make zucchini noodles, peel a zucchini and then (carefully!) use a mandolin to cut the zucchini into long, thin strips. Depending on how big your lasagna is, you may need two zucchini. Once you have your zucchini noodles ready to go, layer them as you would the regular pasta noodles.
If you want to get creative and make the lasagna even healthier, you can also try some other things, like:
- Using higher-quality meat (like grass-fed beef) in your sauce. According to the Mayo Clinic, grass-fed beef contains less fat, more omega-3 fatty acids and more antioxidants, like vitamin E, than conventional beef.
- Using unprocessed meats (like ground beef or ground pork) and season them well instead of using processed meats, like prepared sausage, which often contains added sugar.
- Ditching the meat altogether for a meatless Monday lasagna.
- Adding more vegetables to your sauce. Spinach, chopped yellow squash, mushrooms and fine-chopped carrots are all excellent options.
- If you're using jarred sauce instead of homemade, check the ingredient lists and choose one that doesn't contain added sugar, which can lead to weight gain, obesity, Type 2 diabetes and heart disease, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
- USDA FoodData Central: "Cheese, Cottage, Lowfat, 2% Milkfat"
- USDA FoodData Central: "Cheese, Ricotta, Whole Milk"
- USDA FoodData Central: "Cheese, Ricotta, Part Skim Milk"
- Chowhound: "What Is the Difference Between Ricotta and Cottage Cheese?"
- Taste of Home: "Ricotta and Cottage Cheese"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Know Your Limit for Added Sugars"
- Mayo Clinic: "Does Grass-Fed Beef Have Any Heart-Health Benefits That Other Types of Beef Don't?"