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What Is Pecorino?
Pecorino is an Italian cheese made from sheep’s milk. As one of the oldest entries in the hallowed pantheon of Italy’s cheeses, pecorino brings a variety of texture and flavors to the table—from salty and sharp to sweet and milky—depending on where it’s made and how long it’s been aged.
What Are the Characteristics of Pecorino?
As with other aged cheeses like grana padano and parmigiano reggiano, pecorino is relatively firm. However, pecorino has a much higher fat content than those other firm cheeses. Ewe’s milk is higher in milk solids than both cow or goat’s milk, which results in a rich, buttery texture throughout the structure of this pale yellow cheese.
How Is Pecorino Made?
- First, fresh sheep’s milk is warmed, and coagulating culture in the form of rennet is added to separate the curd.
- Once the curds have set, they are cut to the size of small kernels and cooked until they are firm. The curds are drained, formed into traditional drum-shaped molds and pressed.
- After a period of brine washing, usually by hand, the drums of cheese are aged for at least 20 days and up to two years in a temperature-controlled cave.
6 Varieties of Pecorino
Though pecorino romano is perhaps the most well-known pecorino variety around the world, there are six main varieties of pecorino cheese varieties made in other provinces with protected designation of origin (PDO) status under EU law. Each showcases the slight differences in terroir and palate as you move throughout the country. In certain parts of southern Italy, pecorino is flavored with added ingredients like truffle, nuts—typically walnuts or pistachios, to echo the inherent nuttiness of the cheese—and spices.
- Pecorino romano. While the roots of pecorino romano are in Rome, production shifted to Sardinia in the 1800s to meet worldwide demand; today, pecorino romano is made with both sheep’s milk from the Lazio region near the capital as well as the Sardinian countryside. Nutty and complex, it has the most pronounced salt flavors of the pecorino varieties, and is typically aged between eight months to a year.
- Pecorino sardo. Pecorino sardo typically has a softer, creamier mouthfeel, though its nuances become more pronounced the more it’s aged. Sweeter pecorino sardo can be sold after only 40 days, making it ideal for grating over herb-based sauces like pesto or pairing with fresh melon. A local Sardinian speciality known as casu marzu incorporates the larvae of a certain cheese-loving fly to the pecorino.
- Pecorino toscano. Made in both Grosseto and Siena in Tuscany, pecorino toscano is perhaps the grassiest and mildest of the varieties, sold anywhere from 20 days to three months or more of aging.
- Pecorino siciliano. In Sicily, pecorino is often studded with peppercorns (pecorino pepato) which are added during the removal of whey in the production process. It’s aged anywhere from three months to 18 months.
- Pecorino di filiano. This pecorino from the Filiano region of Basilicata tends to be mellow with a light tang—but with just enough body to pair off with a good bold red wine. The curds are drained in woven baskets, which gives the aged cheese unique striations.
- Pecorino crotonese. In Calabria, a vivid varietal of pecorino comes from Crotone. Aged for a minimum of 90 days, it brings a slightly stronger flavor profile that pairs especially well with the soft fruit notes found in red wine and ripe pears.
Within the regional styles, there are three main categories that result from aging:
- Stagionato, an aged pecorino on the more mature end of the spectrum, with a firm, crumbly texture and toasty nuttiness.
- Semistagionato are cheese aged around six months.
- Fresco cheeses are quite young, usually only aged around 20 days. These cheeses are softer in texture and have mildly sweet grassy flavors.
How to Cook With Pecorino
Pecorino is an ideal grating cheese—firm enough to hold up to a microplane, but rich enough to melt into any number of pasta dishes you might use it with. For everyday occasions, because it’s usually less expensive than Parmigiano-Reggiano, pecorino is best over pastas like cacio e pepe and pasta alla gricia.
Pecorino is traditionally enjoyed on its own, too: nuanced and complex enough to lend dynamism to a glass of red wine and a dish of olives, with maybe a bit of charcuterie and fresh melon. In Italy, an especially mature pecorino can sometimes be the grand finale of a meal, served with an assortment of fresh fruit, nuts and honey.
What Is the Difference Between Pecorino and Parmigiano Reggiano?
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You can always use grana padano or parmesan cheese for pecorino in a pinch, although they differ in flavor profiles and creaminess.
Parmigiano Reggiano, a hard Italian cheese made from skimmed, unpasteurized cow’s milk, has a lengthy aging process (a minimum of two years and occasionally more than four) that results in a deeply nuanced umami and signature granular texture that melts in the mouth. Overall, it tends to be drier than pecorino as a result of both the aging and type of milk used. Parmigiano Reggiano and Parmesan (or any cheese made with cow’s milk) tends to be a bit drier, with a more pronounced umami and less fat than a sheep’s milk cheese like pecorino.
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