Mention mascarpone and most people will probably think of everyone’s favourite Italian dessert, tiramisu. Made from double or triple cream, this soft Italian cheese has a rich, buttery texture and a luxuriously creamy, slightly sweet taste profile. It is best known as a dessert ingredient, but works just as well for adding a hint of creaminess to savoury dishes.
Mascarpone is thought to have been developed in the late Middle Ages in Lombardy, a region famous for its dairy products, including other famous cheeses like Grana Padano, Gorgonzola and Taleggio. It is used in several regional dishes from Lombardy, and is considered a speciality of the area.
No one knows exactly where the name ‘mascarpone’ comes from, with the two most popular theories both involving perceived similarities to other dairy items. The first is that the name derives from mascarpa, an unrelated milk product made from stracchino whey, and the second is that it comes from mascarpia, a word in the local dialect for ricotta.
People tend to assume that mascarpone is a cream cheese, but despite the name, cream cheese is usually made from milk, while mascarpone is actually made from cream. It contains at least twice as much fat as most cream cheeses - typically between 50 to 75 percent fat in total - giving it a rich, melting flavour and smooth, spreadable consistency.
Unlike many cheeses, which use animal rennet as a thickening agent, mascarpone uses acidic substances like lemon juice, vinegar or citric acid to curdle the cream and thicken it into cheese. This means that mascarpone is suitable for those following a vegetarian diet, and you can even make a vegan version by swapping the cream for coconut cream.
How to Make Homemade Mascarpone: The Recipe
Quality mascarpone can be difficult to get hold of, not to mention expensive, but this delicious creamy cheese can actually be made in your own kitchen, and it’s fairly simple if you know how.
The good news is that homemade mascarpone requires just two, easily obtainable ingredients - whole cream (or heavy cream) and lemon juice. You will need approximately one tablespoon of lemon juice for every cup of cream. The less good news is that it does require some precision, so you have to make sure you watch it the whole time. A candy thermometer is a must for this recipe. If you don’t already have one you’ll need to invest in one or get a friend to lend you theirs in exchange for some mascarpone treats when you’re done.
The technique basically involves alternatively heating and cooling the cream, adding the lemon juice part way through to help it thicken. Pour the cream into a small saucepan and heat over a medium heat, stirring constantly to avoid scorching. Temperature is very important for this recipe, so keep checking with your thermometer throughout. When the cream reaches 185 F (85 C), remove from the heat and allow it to cool to 140 F (60C). Repeat the process, heating the cream to 185 F (85 C), but this time adding the lemon juice before allowing it to cool to 140 F (60C) again. When you’re done heating the cream, pour it into a glass bowl to cool completely.
Now the cream is cool, you need to drain off the whey until you’re left with only the thick, creamy curds. Rest a sieve over a large bowl to catch the liquid, and line the sieve with a tea towel or a few layers of cheesecloth. Pour the cream into the lined sieve and refrigerate for 24 hours. When you come back, you should find your sieve full of properly thickened mascarpone. For best results, use it right away, otherwise it can be stored in the refrigerator for 3-4 days.
Alternatives to Mascarpone
If you’re out of mascarpone and you don’t have time to make a fresh batch, there are plenty of alternatives you can use as a substitute, although some are better suited to sweet dishes, and others to savoury.
Closest in texture and fat content to mascarpone is clotted cream, best known as a topping for scones in the English counties of Devon and Cornwall. Clotted cream is around 55% milk fat, and makes a similarly luxurious addition to desserts, cakes and pastries.
There are also several lower-fat alternatives to mascarpone which are worth considering if you’re trying to avoid too much saturated fat. Mascarpone is delicious, but because of its very high fat content it should be enjoyed as an occasional luxury only. Even our healthier alternatives are quite high in fat, and should be eaten in moderation.
Cream cheese and whipped ricotta both have a similar creamy taste to mascarpone, but with half the calories. They can be used in both sweet and savoury dishes, and if you’re using them as a last minute replacement rather than a low fat option, you can mix them with whipping cream for a more luxurious texture.
Other dairy products with a similar smooth consistency include sour cream, crème fraîche, and Greek yoghurt. These tend to have a slightly sour, tangy flavour that is better suited to savoury dishes than desserts.
What to do with mascarpone
Deliciously creamy with just a touch of sweetness, mascarpone is often used as a thick, silky-smooth alternative to cream in desserts, pastries or cakes. It is probably best known as one of the key ingredients in tiramisu, where its buttery flavour is used to balance the bitterness of coffee. Try mixing it with a dusting of powdered sugar and serving it with your favourite dessert, or using it in place of cream cheese for a truly decadent cheesecake.
Although it is most commonly used in desserts, mascarpone can also be used to enrich savoury dishes. It tastes great swirled into soups and pasta sauces, or added to risottos and creamy vegetable gratins. Serve as an accompaniment to smoked salmon, fresh asparagus and lemon, or mix it into the filling of your quiche or savoury tart.
If you’ve just made a batch of mascarpone, and you want to treat yourself or your dinner guests to some seriously luxurious desserts, we’ve gathered a few of our favourites that are sure to hit the mark.
Creamy mascarpone and bitter coffee are a classic flavour combination, and these light, fluffy espresso cupcakes marry the two perfectly. A real must for coffee lovers.
For more mascarpone inspiration, take a look at our collection of five irresistible mascarpone desserts. There are some classic Italian flavours in there, with a fruit cake and mascarpone semifreddo, and a fragrant lavender and berry compôte tiramisu, as well as a trifle with a difference and the ultimate rich, gooey chocolate cake.