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What Is Sheep Milk Cheese?
Sheep milk cheese is a classification given to a variety of hard and soft cheeses prepared using milk from a sheep. Cheese made from sheep’s milk contains more lactose and minerals than either cow’s milk or goat’s milk, and double the amount of butterfat. This high-fat content gives the cheese a creamy mouthfeel. Sheep milk cheese has a low-calcium content, which makes it less prone to contamination than cow’s milk during the cooling process.
What Are the Characteristics of Sheep Milk Cheese?
Sheep milk cheeses are most often described as gamey, but they can feature a range of flavor undertones, from milky and sweet to vegetal, tangy, and nutty. Cheese made from sheep’s milk will visibly sweat when left out for longer periods of time, due to its high percentage of butterfat content.
9 Types of Sheep Milk Cheese
There are many varieties of sheep milk cheese with prominent roles in culinary canons across Italy, Spain, France, and Greece.
- Manchego: Manchego, one of the best-known sheep milk cheeses, hails from the La Mancha region of Spain. Manchego is a firm, pliant cheese with a relatively mild character made from the milk of Manchega sheep. Queso manchego is a protected designation of origin (PDO) product, which means that the cheese must be made using traditional methods in the La Mancha region to be considered true queso manchego.
- Roquefort: Roquefort is a blue cheese from the south of France. Known for its mossy green-blue stippling, delicate crumbly texture, and sharp tang, Roquefort is hailed as the “king of cheeses” in its home country.
- Ossau-Iraty: Ossau-Iraty is a medium-firm, unpasteurized cheese made in the Franco-Basque region. Due to its far-reaching origins and traditional methods (it’s still mainly made by the shepherds who tend the Basco-béarnaise, Red-Face Manech, or Black-Face Manech sheep that roam the countryside), it shares the distinction of being one of two cheeses ever granted appellation d'origine contrôlée (AOC) status in France—the other is Roquefort. (AOC, which translates to controlled designation of origin, is a French certification system that protects specific wines, cheeses, and butters— similar to the European Union’s PDO regulation.)
- Idiazábal: Another Basque country classic, idiazábal is a hard, pressed cheese made from the milk of Latxa and Carranzana sheep that is aged for a minimum of 60 days. Idiazábal has a nutty, brown butter flavor, and, depending on the production and aging process, it is sometimes smoked with a variety of woods, which gives it a dark rind.
- Pecorino: Pecorino cheese reigns supreme in Italy. There are six main varieties of pecorino cheese varieties—pecorino romano, pecorino toscano, pecorino siciliano, pecorino di Carmasciano, and pecorino sardo—with protected designation of origin status under EU law. Each variety of pecorino cheese 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 truffles, nuts—typically walnuts or pistachios, to echo the inherent nuttiness of the cheese—and spices.
- Casu marzu: For those bold of heart, Sardinia’s traditional casu marzu is a soft, aged sheep’s milk cheese featuring the live insect larvae of the cheese fly, taking pecorino a step further down the road into fermentation territory. It’s considered an aphrodisiac, and typically sliced very thin and served on flatbread, alongside strong red wines.
- Feta: Feta is a brined curd cheese from Greece. Feta is made either primarily from sheep’s milk, or a blend of both sheep and goat’s milk, and formed into blocks that crumble easily into salads or flaky pastries.
- Halloumi: Cyprus-born halloumi is an unripened, brined sheep’s milk cheese with a texture similar to mozzarella or paneer, a soft cheese from India. Halloumi, which is typically fried or grilled, can also be made with goat’s milk or cow’s milk.
- Ricotta: Creamy, loose ricotta and its pressed, salted, and aged sibling, are often made from sheep’s milk. While traditional ricotta was made using leftover whey from the production of other cheeses, modern ricotta is made using cooked—then strained—whole milk. Sheep’s milk ricotta maintains the fluffy, spreadable texture of the format, with an added funk and complexity.
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