Discovering Pecorino: Varieties and Culinary Uses

Pecorino, a name that often calls to mind Italy’s bucolic countryside, has a rich history that dates back thousands of years.

With its crumbly texture, robust flavor, and varying degrees of sharpness, this Italian cheese is more than a culinary treat. It’s a journey through Italy’s gastronomic tradition.

As we explore the world of pecorino, we’ll uncover the secrets behind its unmistakable flavor, the artisans who have mastered its production, and the ways in which this timeless cheese continues to leave an indelible mark on global cuisine.

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What is Pecorino?

Pecorino is a hard Italian cheese made from sheep’s milk. The name “pecorino” comes from “pecora”, which means sheep in Italian.

It’s a typical cheese of the central and southern peninsular and island regions of Italy, while it’s not a typical food of the northern regions, which prefer cow’s milk cheeses.

Due to its long history and the different production techniques in the different regions of Italy, 8 types of Pecorino have been recognized and protected by the European Community through the PDO (Protected Designation of Origin) status: Pecorino Romano, Pecorino Toscano, Pecorino Sardo, Pecorino di Filiano, Pecorino Crotonese, Pecorino di Picinisco, Pecorino Siciliano and Pecorino delle Balze Volterrane.

Several other Italian Pecorino cheeses are also included in the List of Traditional Foods (PAT) issued by the Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (Mipaaf).

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Where Does Pecorino Come From?

In Italy, sheep’s milk cheeses are produced in several regions, especially the central and southern regions and the islands.

The three most widespread and well-known PDO denominations produced in multiple regions are:

  • Pecorino Romano, which is produced in Sardinia, Tuscany and Lazio
  • Pecorino Toscano, which is produced in both Tuscany and Lazio
  • Pecorino Sardo which is produced in Sardinia.

Other pecorinos are produced regionally and often provincially, taking on a strong geographic typification:

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TOSCANA

ABRUZZO

  • Pecorino d’Abruzzo
  • Pecorino di Farindola
  • Pecorino di Atri

EMILIA-ROMAGNA

  • Pecorino di fossa di Sogliano
  • Pecorino del Pastore
  • Pecorino dolce dei colli Bolognesi

UMBRIA

  • Pecorino di Fossa
  • Pecorino di Norcia del Pastore
  • Pecorino morbido dell’Umbria
  • Pecorino del Subasio
  • Pecorino Toscano

MARCHE

  • Pecorino Marchigiano
  • Pecorino di Fossa

LAZIO

  • Pecorino di Amatrice
  • Pecorino Romano
  • Pecorino Toscano
  • Pecorino di Picinisco

CAMPANIA

  • Pecorino Bagnolese
    Pecorino di Carmasciano

PUGLIA

  • Pecorino Foggiano
  • Pecorino Dauno
  • Canestrato Pugliese

BASILICATA

  • Canestrato di Moliterno
  • Pecorino di Filiano

SARDEGNA

CALABRIA

  • Canestrato
  • Pecorino del Monte Poro
  • Pecorino Crotonese

SICILIA

  • Pecorino Siciliano
  • Piacentino Ennese
  • Vastedda della Valle del Belice
  • Belicino
  • Caciotta degli Elimi
  • Canestrato
  • Formaggio di Santo Stefano di Quisquina
  • Maiorchino
  • Pecorino rosso
  • Piddiato
  • Primosale
  • Secondo sale
  • Tuma

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What is the Difference Between Pecorino and Parmigiano Reggiano?

Pecorino and Parmigiano Reggiano are both Italian cheeses with rich histories and distinct flavor profiles.

Here are the key differences between the two:

THE MILK

Pecorino: This cheese is made from sheep’s milk (the name “pecorino” comes from “pecora,” the Italian word for sheep).

Parmigiano Reggiano: It’s made from cow’s milk.

REGION OF ORIGIN

Pecorino: All types of pecorino cheese found in Italy come from the central and southern regions, including the islands.

Parmigiano Reggiano: This cheese is produced exclusively in a specific region of northern Italy that includes parts of the provinces of Parma, Reggio Emilia, Modena, Bologna, and Mantua.

THE AGE

Pecorino: It can be eaten at different stages of aging, from fresh (soft and mild) to aged (hard and tangy).

Parmigiano Reggiano: This cheese is typically aged for a longer period of time, often between 12 and 36 months or more, resulting in a grainy texture and a rich, nutty flavor.

THE FLAVOR

Pecorino: Depending on aging, it can range from mild and creamy (when young) to salty and sharp (when aged). Pecorino Romano, one of the aged varieties, is particularly known for its strong and salty flavor.

Parmigiano Reggiano: It has a deep, nutty and umami-rich flavor with a crystalline texture. Its flavor is less salty than aged Pecorino and is often described as savory and slightly fruity.

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Is Pecorino the Same as Pecorino Romano?

“Pecorino” and “Pecorino Romano” are related, but not exactly the same.

The term “pecorino” refers to Italian cheeses made from sheep’s milk. As we mentioned in the paragraph above, there are several types of pecorino cheese, depending on the region in Italy where they’re produced.

For example, Pecorino Romano comes from the Lazio region, Sardinia and parts of Tuscany, Pecorino Sardo from Sardinia and Pecorino Toscano from Tuscany.

Each has its own flavor, texture and aging process.

Pecorino Romano is a type of pecorino cheese. It’s one of the oldest cheeses in Italy and is known for its sharp, salty flavor. Pecorino Romano is commonly used in Italian dishes such as pasta with cacio e pepe or carbonara. It’s a hard cheese, ideal for grating.

So all Pecorino Romano is Pecorino, but not all Pecorino is Pecorino Romano.

When someone says “pecorino” without specifying, they are talking about a sheep’s milk cheese, but it could be any kind.

When you need to be specific, you use the regional name, like Romano, Toscano and so on.

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What Makes Pecorino so Good?

Pecorino is a unique cheese that has carved out its own niche in the world of cheese. Several factors make Pecorino different: The sheep’s milk origin, for example, and the varieties of pecorino. In fact, there are different types of Pecorino depending on the region of production and the aging process.

Pecorino has a distinct flavor that can be described as nutty, salty, and sometimes even slightly pungent or spicy when aged. This makes it an excellent cheese for both cooking and eating straight.

Because of its different aging stages, Pecorino can be used in a wide variety of dishes. Young pecorino can be sliced and eaten with bread or paired with fruit. Aged pecorino can be grated over pasta, salads and many other dishes.

Traditionally, pecorino is made using ancient techniques. Some varieties are rubbed with olive oil and aged in caves to develop their characteristic flavors. Have a look for example to this aged Tuscan Pecorino in a cave

It has ancient roots. Pecorino Romano, for example, has been produced for over 2,000 years and was a staple in the diet of the Roman legions.

These characteristics, combined with its rich heritage and geographical diversity, make Pecorino a truly special cheese in the world’s culinary culture.

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Why is Pecorino not for Vegetarian?

Pecorino is a type of cheese made from sheep’s milk. While milk itself is vegetarian, the reason some cheeses (including many pecorinos) are not considered vegetarian is because of the presence of rennet used in the cheese-making process.

Rennet is an enzyme traditionally derived from the stomach lining of slaughtered young ruminants, such as calves or lambs. This enzyme helps to coagulate milk, transforming it from liquid to curds and whey, a key step in the cheese-making process.

Because the traditional source of rennet involves the killing of animals, cheeses made with this rennet are not considered vegetarian.

However, there are vegetarian-friendly alternatives to animal rennet, such as microbial rennet (produced by certain fungi or bacteria) and genetically engineered rennet.

Some pecorinos may be made with these vegetarian-friendly rennets, but it’s important to check the label or contact the manufacturer to be sure.

For example, to name just one, Vegetale di Sardegna is a raw processed sheep’s milk pecorino cheese without animal rennet, with a strong and robust flavor that is suitable for vegetarian diets.

If you’re a vegetarian who wants to eat cheese, it’s a good practice to look for cheeses labeled “vegetarian” or to do some research on how the cheese was made to determine if animal-derived rennet was used.

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How Do I Use Pecorino?

Pecorino is known for its salty, sharp flavor and firm texture. But there are several types of pecorino, and each type has its own unique flavor and characteristics. The good news is that they can all be used similarly in culinary applications.

Here’s how to use pecorino:

  • Grated over Dishes: One of the most common ways to use pecorino, especially pecorino romano, is to grate it over pasta dishes. Its strong flavor makes it particularly suitable for savory sauces such as carbonara or amatriciana.
  • Sliced in Salads: You can add thin slices or chunks of Pecorino Sardo to salads for a salty punch. It pairs well with fresh greens, nuts and fruit.

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  • In Pesto: Pecorino Fiore Sardo is one of the key ingredients in authentic Italian pesto recipe. It provides a sharper, saltier flavor when you use it in your homemade sauce.
  • As a Table Cheese: Enjoy Pecorino, especially the shorter-aged varieties, on its own or with bread, fruit, and a drizzle of honey.
  • In Risotto or Soups: Stir grated pecorino into risotto or soup just before serving for a creamy texture and a burst of flavor.
  • Melted in Sandwiches or Toasties: Consider using Pecorino Toscano for a gourmet grilled cheese sandwich. Its salty flavor pairs well with sweeter fillings such as fig jam or pear slices.
  • As Part of a Cheese Plate (Antipasto): Pecorino is a must on many Italian cheese platters. Serve it with olives, cured meats, fruit and nuts. Don’t forget a glass of wine!

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  • Cooked in Dishes: You can use Pecorino in fillings for stuffed pasta such as ravioli or in casseroles.
  • On Pizza: Try replacing or adding grated or thinly sliced Pecorino cheese to your next homemade pizza.

When using Pecorino in recipes, be aware of its saltiness. You may need to adjust the amount of additional salt in the dish. Have fun experimenting with this versatile cheese!

How to Store Pecorino

Pecorino should be wrapped in parchment or wax paper and then stored in a plastic bag with a few holes to allow the cheese to breathe.

Store in the coolest part of the refrigerator, ideally in the cheese drawer. For longer storage, consider vacuum sealing to prevent the cheese from drying out. Check out this Vacuum Sealer by Nesco!

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